Published: August 30th, 2023
Categories: Cannabis Info
Unless you’ve lived a very sheltered life, you’ve probably heard that smoking tobacco is bad for your lungs—really bad. However, there’s a lot of misinformation about whether cannabis smoke is harmful for your lungs (it is).
In this article, we take a closer look at the effects of cannabis smoke on the lungs, and then assess whether vaping is really a safer alternative.
Cannabis smoke is very harmful for your lungs—all smoke is. While some forms of smoke are more harmful than others, don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you smoke your cannabis without tobacco it isn’t going to harm your lung health.
It should also be noted that filtering smoke through water, such as in a bong, doesn’t mitigate the health risks. It may be that by removing some of the combusted material water helps to make the smoke less harmful, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. All inhaled smoke is harmful to your lungs.
Although a point of contention, it is generally agreed that tobacco smoke is particularly harmful for your mouth, throat, and lungs, carrying with it greater health risks compared to smoking cannabis alone. However, broadly they are the same, sharing around 50 of the same carcinogenic compounds.
Due to differences in smoking habits, it’s hard to ascertain whether cannabis smoke poses the same risks as tobacco smoke. For instance, people who smoke tobacco will usually smoke every day for years, and smoke at least several cigarettes a day. While there are people who consume cannabis in this way, the numbers are smaller, and many of those people also smoke tobacco, making it hard to distinguish one from the other.
That being said, there is some evidence that cannabis smoke alone is less likely to cause pulmonary obstructive disease compared to tobacco smoke. But that doesn’t mean people should assume that it won’t cause this condition, or worsen it in those who already suffer from it. All that the research suggests is that the chances of developing this condition may be lower in those who only consume cannabis.
The research is not all in favour of cannabis, though. A 2023 study published in Radiology found that emphysema and airway inflammation were actually worse in cannabis smokers compared to tobacco-only smokers. The researchers suggest that the reason for this is that cannabis is usually smoked without filtration, meaning that combusted materials are more harmful to the airways compared to filtered tobacco smoke.
As mentioned, bongs and pipes should not be considered safer than joints and spliffs. Pipes don’t typically use filtration, but they deliver large hits to a user’s lungs, making them very harsh on the airways.
Bongs, on the other hand, do use filtration, sometimes extensively. This is why some smokers love them. Common sense would probably suggest that filtering and cooling smoke through water before inhaling would inevitably make it less harmful than other methods of smoking. Research disagrees, though.
There is significant evidence that water-pipe smoking methods (hookahs and bongs) are just as damaging to the lungs as cigarette smoking. A direct comparison to cannabis smoking hasn’t been researched, but given these methods seem to be no safer than cigarettes, you certainly shouldn’t assume they’re going to be any better for your health compared to spliffs and joints.
In short, yes—vaping is also bad for your lungs. How bad it is, and what compounds are responsible for the harm, remain a partial mystery. Much of the mystery will be revealed in time as the longer-term effects of vaping become more apparent. But for now, we do know about some harmful effects of vaping.
Popcorn lung gets its name from popcorn factories, which first caused this condition to appear. In these factories, diacetyl was added to the popcorn to enhance its flavour. When the workers breathed it in, it caused their bronchioles to become damaged, leading to bronchiolitis obliterans (BO).
Diacetyl is also added to vape juice to enhance its flavour, and can also cause BO in vapers.
The fatty compounds in vape juice can eventually deposit and build up in the lungs, leading to a rare form of lipid pneumonia. Eventually, this buildup can cause an inflammatory response in the lungs, which can see people hospitalised and in need of treatment.
Vaping can also cause blisters and small tears on the lungs, which can cause air to leak out. When this happens, the lung can fully deflate and collapse. Lungs always hold a litre of air in them, even when you feel as though you’ve fully exhaled. A collapsed lung requires recovery time and sometimes surgery.
This condition has a difficult name, but it’s worth paying attention to, especially for those who vape cannabis products.
EVALI begins with shortness of breath and leads to severe breathing difficulties, sometimes resulting in death. It is most common in teens and young adults. While there are thought to be multiple causes, the main suspect is vitamin E. Vitamin E acetate is added to some vape juices, especially those containing THC. Though harmless if ingested, when inhaled, this compound is thought to be toxic, and can have incredibly damaging effects.
If you vape cannabis, make sure that your vape juice does not contain vitamin E acetate.
Unfortunately, if you inhale cannabis, you’re probably going to do some harm to your lungs. If you smoke or vape occasionally, it’s probable that this harm will never lead to anything serious (though you can never be sure). However, if you want to totally protect your lungs, you should avoid them entirely!
Here are some lung-friendly methods of ingesting cannabis.
As edible cannabis is, well, eaten, it cannot harm the lungs directly. Regarding physical health, edibles are significantly healthier than smoking or vaping, and shouldn’t really harm you in any way.
However, edibles are much more potent and long-lasting compared to smoked cannabis, and so this should be taken into account. Eating cannabis is not simply another way to experience the same effects as smoking or vaping—it is a distinct experience. Though it is a better method of consumption if you want to protect your lungs, it doesn’t directly replace smoking or vaping.
And, of course, no consumption method protects you from the potentially adverse mental effects of consuming THC.
Sublingual tinctures might be a good option for those who want to experience a similar high to that of smoking, but who don’t want to inhale. All it involves is placing a few drops of tincture under the tongue and holding it there for around a minute before swallowing.
Like with inhalation methods, sublingual tinctures allow THC and other cannabinoids to pass directly into the bloodstream. However, with this method they enter circulation via the oral mucosa, rather than the alveoli.
You could also use THC patches. These products allow cannabinoids to enter the blood transdermally in a time-released manner. However, the degree of psychoactive effects experienced with this method vary depending on the dose and product.
You can also use topical creams, but these won’t get you high; the effects will only be local to the areas in which the products are applied. If you want to ease sore muscles, then this can be great. If, however, you want to experience psychotropic effects, then this isn’t a suitable method.
Smoking and vaping are bad for your lungs. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it. Current evidence suggests that vaping is probably less damaging compared to smoking, but the long-term effects are not clear.
Despite what we’re told, though, vaping is not harmless, nor is smoking cannabis without tobacco, and nor is smoking through a bong or other filtered apparatus. If you want to protect your lungs (and they really are very precious), then you should avoid inhalation altogether and opt for other methods of cannabis intake.