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- New research shows that smoking cannabis doesn’t carry the same risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as smoking tobacco.
- Prior research has produced similar findings, while other studies have shown a risk of COPD from cannabis smoking.
- Cannabis use is associated with numerous health benefits, but there are also drawbacks for chronic users.
- Experts recommend avoiding smoking or vaping and seeking out alternative ways to consume cannabis.
New research shows that the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — heavily associated with cigarette smoking — is not as high when it comes to cannabis use.
The data was collaborated on by a wide range of researchers from various institutes in the United States. In it, researchers say that smoking cannabis is not as damaging on the lungs as smoking cigarettes.
While the findings are promising — particularly for those who use cannabis for its numerous benefits — experts caution that there are some caveats to the research.
Among other things, they note that any smoke is damaging to the lungs, whether it comes from cannabis or tobacco.
COPD is characterized by coughing and shortness of breath. There is no cure, although the condition can be treated.
While there are a number of environmental risk factors that can contribute to COPD, the most common cause is tobacco smoking.
Experts say that decades of data shows a strong correlation between tobacco use and COPD, but the connection between cannabis smoking and COPD hasn’t been studied as much.
“There is a significant amount of data to support the negative impact of cigarette smoking on lung function, but the evidence so far for an association between use of cannabis and decrease in lung function is inconsistent,” explained Dr. Thomas Kilkenny, a doctor of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at Staten Island University Hospital, Northwell Health, in New York who was not involved in the study.
Kilkenny told Medical News Today that previous studies have drawn similar conclusions — that smoking only cannabis is less harmful to the lungs. Conversely, other studies have indicated that cannabis use is, in fact, associated with abnormalities of small airway function.
He cited a University of Queensland (Australia) study from earlier this year that yielded further data.
“First, it confirms that cigarette smoking — with or without cannabis use — is associated with a reduction of airflow in the lungs,” he said. “Second, there is no consistent association between cannabis use and abnormalities in lung function. Finally, co-use of tobacco and cannabis appears to entail no additional risk to lung function beyond the risks associated with tobacco use alone. The verdict still remains out.”
The authors of the more recent U.S. study acknowledge that there are limitations to their data, owing in part to the fact that study participants were self-reporting.
“Because of our study’s limitations, these findings underscore the need for further studies to better understand longer term effects of marijuana smoking in COPD,” the authors wrote.
Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University, told Medical News Today that there are no guarantees that smoking only cannabis will not lead to COPD.
“Assessing the relationship (between COPD and cannabis smoking) gets complicated because of other factors — heavy versus light use, type of cannabis smoking device, genetics, lifestyle, occupation, and geography,” he explained. “Consider a miner living in a very polluted area who smokes cannabis. It would be difficult to attribute the cause of COPD in this case.”
While cannabis use has been widespread for decades, it’s only in recent years that legalization efforts have led to increased availability.
The legal cannabis industry has created a plethora of ways to partake, from smoking to tinctures to edibles.
Now, there’s a growing body of evidence that cannabis has more benefits than just a simple high.
“Cannabis use has been studied extensively and the results show several beneficial outcomes from its use, including lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation and chronic pain, treating insomnia, preventing relapse in drug and alcohol addiction, treating anxiety and depression as well as preventing seizures,” Kilkenny said. “There are also several studies under way to look at the cancer-fighting attributes of cannabis.”
While the benefits of cannabis are becoming better known, there are also drawbacks that have nothing to do with smoke inhalation — though these are generally found in chronic users, said Kilkenny.
“Problems can include temporary hallucinations, temporary paranoia, worsening symptoms in patients with schizophrenia, as well as chronic nausea and vomiting,” he explained.
The availability of legal cannabis products does create issues from a public health standpoint, said Khubchandani.
“The amount and type allowed legally for medical and recreational use is generally considered safe,” he said. “The challenge will remain with overuse, cocktails, influence on young adults, and heavy and chronic consumption. Political, social, and economic considerations are driving legalization, but those should not be the sole drivers.”
Kilkenny said that for someone who’d like to try cannabis for its health benefits, the best-practice advice is to seek out an expert.
“There are now physicians that have expertise in using the various cannabis products,” he said. “At the very minimum, go to a reputable distributor for advice.”
Because different products have different effects and outcomes, it’s important for people to buy the right product to give the right outcome. While research suggests that smoking cannabis isn’t as bad for the lungs as smoking tobacco, experts say it’s still best to avoid smoking altogether — something that’s increasingly easier with the wide range of products on the market.
“Avoid smoking or vaping cannabis products,” cautioned Kilkenny.
He noted that there can be more serious health effects for children who smoke or vape cannabis.
“As to smoking cannabis, I feel the jury is still out as to whether it can cause chronic lung disease. It is best to be avoided. Also, keep any edible cannabis out of the reach of children as they often mistake the product for candy and can overdose,” Kilkenny added.