Marijuana Smoke vs. Tobacco: Which is More Dangerous?

It’s widely assumed that smoking is smoking and that the risks of marijuana will therefore be equal to the risks of smoking tobacco, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Additionally, cannabis vaporizers could reduce the risk of marijuana consumption even further.

Smoking tobacco is widely recognized as the leading preventable cause of death in the world. Smokers die an average of 10 years younger than non-smokers, and conditions such as lung cancer, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are caused by smoking tobacco. Marijuana is also (usually) smoked, and so it seems natural to assume that the risks of smoking it would be equal to the risks of smoking tobacco. The marijuana smoke vs. tobacco smoke issue seems irrelevant because smoking in any form is bad. However, research appears to show that while marijuana smoking is still dangerous, it is less so than smoking tobacco. The biggest advantage marijuana has over tobacco, though, is that people who use it medicinally or recreationally (where allowed by law) don’t have to smoke it.

Tobacco Smoke and Marijuana Smoke: Many Similarities, Some Differences

Tobacco smoke is widely-known to contain over 7,000 chemicals, with around 70 of them being carcinogenic. This is a big part of the reason smoking is so bad for you: inhaling toxic and cancer-causing chemicals every single day eventually takes its toll on your health.

For the issue of marijuana smoke vs. tobacco, the evidence shows that there are many similarities between the two, but some differences as well. For example, both marijuana smoke and tobacco smoke contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, but in marijuana smoke levels are lower in “mainstream” smoke (which is inhaled and exhaled by users) but higher in “sidestream” smoke (which rises from the tip of the marijuana cigarette). The picture for other chemicals is similar: some are higher in marijuana smoke, some are higher in cigarette smoke. At least 50 of the carcinogens in tobacco smoke are also present in marijuana smoke.

The simple truth is that burning plant matter produces a lot of harmful chemicals, regardless of which plant it is. There are some differences between marijuana and tobacco smoke, but on the whole they’re very similar.

The Dangers of Smoking Tobacco

As most people are aware, smoking tobacco carries many serious risks. These include lung cancer, many other cancers, heart disease, COPD, strokes and a wide range of other conditions. On the whole, smoking kills around 480,000 people each year in the U.S., and is the leading preventable cause of death in the country.

The Dangers of Smoking Marijuana

For the issue of marijuana smoke vs. tobacco smoke, comparing the risks of smoking to those of marijuana puts the chemical content of the smoke in context.

Overall, the risks of smoking marijuana aren’t as clearly-established as those from smoking tobacco, but are still probably present. For example, many studies have investigated the risk that marijuana causes cancer, but the results have been mixed. A systematic review of the evidence on marijuana and lung cancer from 2006 found that marijuana caused changes to the lungs that would suggest cancer-causing potential, but didn’t uncover a statistically significant link. However, other studies have shown a link.

The evidence on other forms of cancer is similar: the results are mixed, but marijuana smoking does probably pose some risk. There are many issues that make the question a complicated one to answer – for instance, many marijuana smokers combine it with tobacco when smoking – and it’s also difficult to research because of the illegality of marijuana in most parts of the world.

Other conditions and problems are a little clearer, but uncertainty is still widespread. For example, marijuana smoking is bad for the lungs, similar to tobacco smoking. Marijuana smokers are more likely to get a cough, wheeze, have airway inflammation and produce sputum, but impacts on general lung functioning haven’t been consistently demonstrated.

The Risks of Marijuana Smoking: Why the Uncertainty?

The challenge of comparing marijuana smoke vs. tobacco some is more difficult because of various factors relevant to marijuana smoking. Firstly, as mentioned earlier, many marijuana smokers use tobacco with marijuana, but other don’t. Marijuana smokers often hold the smoke in their lungs, leading to more harmful chemicals being deposited. However, even heavy marijuana smokers don’t inhale as much smoke as cigarette smokers, so daily exposure is generally lower. Finally, marijuana smokers recruited to studies may not be completely honest about how much they use.

Staying Safe: Quitting or Consuming Marijuana Another Way

While the risks of smoking marijuana aren’t as well established as those of smoking tobacco, there are still undoubtedly risks. The best way to minimize these risks (including the risk of schizophrenia related to THC) is to stop consuming marijuana, but if you’re using it for medical purposes in particular, this may not be possible.

Thankfully, alternative methods of consuming marijuana are likely to reduce the risks to users. Although you have to be careful to ensure you receive the right dose, cooking marijuana into edibles is the safest way to consume it, completely removing risks to your lungs. Alternatively, vaporizers for marijuana prevent (or limit) the formation of combustion products and are therefore likely to be safer than smoking.

Whatever approach you prefer, stopping smoking marijuana and tobacco is essential to protect your health and minimize your risk of any issues.