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Differences Between Weed & Tobacco

Posted by Tobias Corelli on Nov 08, 2022

It’s no secret: smoking tobacco harms your lungs and health. Not only can it cause cancer, but it can also lead to a host of all sorts of pulmonary and overall health issues along the way. Taking this into account, many states in the nation have passed legislative restrictions over the years on what kind of tobacco products can be sold and where they can be consumed, heavily banning their use in public places due to the effects of second-hand smoke.

As cannabis enters recreational legalization in many of the same states, many of the same questions and concerns arise about its effect on one’s health. And since weed is also often smoked, it seems natural to assume that it may have the same effect on health as tobacco, but this is not necessarily the case. Just like with alcohol and weed, these two substances have quite a few differences.

Let’s explore the differences and similarities between smoking weed vs. smoking cigarettes to try and get a broader view on the topic.

What is the Effect of Smoking on the Lungs?

Without taking a deep dive into how smoking affects your lungs, it is widely known that the effects of smoke on your lungs are not good. The tar residue smoke leaves behind could affect the health of your lungs and their ability to filter the air you breathe. This can cause irritation and coughing and lead to other more severe pulmonary conditions like bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Chemicals in Tobacco

While nicotine is the primary chemical people consume tobacco for, tobacco can contain several thousand different chemicals, some of which are known to be carcinogenic. It’s probably no surprise, with how many chemicals are in cigarettes, that inhaling these chemicals regularly is probably not a good idea. When it comes to what nicotine does to your body, the nicotine itself can narrow your veins and arteries, which increases the workload on your heart's ability to pump blood through those veins and effectively get oxygen to the body’s extremities.

Chemicals in Weed

Weed and tobacco are both smoked herbs, so they’re made up of the same things, right? Actually, no. Cannabis is made up of several compounds, the most researched of which are d-9-THC, CBD, d-8-THC, and cannabinol. While cannabis does not contain nicotine, it does share some of the same compounds found in tobacco, including some that are known to be carcinogenic. 

But that’s not the whole story. Not only is cannabis thought to contain lower levels of these carcinogenic compounds, but according to one article, “smoking marijuana…has not been conclusively linked to lung cancer.” This shows that there is still a lot of thorough research that needs to be conducted on marijuana, which is on hold until its classification as a schedule 1 drug changes in the United States.

Weed Smokers' Lungs vs. Cigarettes

So far, we know that: 

  • tobacco and the compounds it contains have proven adverse effects on a person’s health, including cancer; 
  • weed contains some of the same carcinogenic chemicals but to a lesser extent; 
  • and, aside from their respective desired effects, each affects the body and its health in different ways. 

But we’re not in the clear yet. Like any other substance, cannabis does affect the health of your lungs. It seems safe to say that marijuana smokers not only take longer, deeper hits than tobacco smokers, but they also hold in those hits for longer. This supports why marijuana smokers are still vulnerable to some of the same effects tobacco has on the lungs. 

Still, it does not seem to be to the same degree as tobacco. A 20-year study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that marijuana is less damaging to the lungs than tobacco smokers.

But this only applies when we’re comparing a tobacco smoker, who smokes a pack of 20 cigarettes a day, to a marijuana smoker, who smokes 2 to 3 times a month on average. According to the paper’s lead author, Mark Pletcher, MD, MPH, associate professor in the Division of Clinical Epidemiology at UCSF, heavy marijuana users were not commonly found in the study population, making it difficult to determine a perspective on the effects on heavy weed smokers lungs.

The paper’s last author Stefan Kertesz, MD, MSc, associate professor in the Division of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine and the Birmingham VA Medical Center, puts it well: “There’s a straight-line relationship: the more you use, the more you lose.”

The Bottom Line

The American Lung Association would be the first to caution you against smoking anything, including a mix of weed and tobacco, as both result in smoke entering the lungs and having eventual negative pulmonary effects. As indicated in some of these studies, weed may have a decreased effect on a person’s health compared to tobacco, but that is also insufficient to know for sure. 

Until more in-depth research is conducted on marijuana and its effects, keep yourself updated on the latest research to make the best decision for yourself and your health. And, as always, stay safe!

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