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Will Recreational Marijuana Cause an Increase in Lung Cancer?

January 09, 2023

After much anticipation, recreational cannabis went on sale in Connecticut on Jan. 10. But if you’re headed to the dispensary, are you putting yourself at risk for lung cancer?

Andrew Salner, MD, is medical director of the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at Hartford Hospital and serves on the CT Medical Marijuana Program Physician Advisory Board.

He breaks down what we know, what we don’t, and what to keep in mind about lung health and marijuana.

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Smoking and vaping marijuana definitely harms your lungs.

Here’s what we can say with confidence.

“Smoking marijuana definitely increases the risk of lung disease,” says Dr. Salner. “We know it can cause emphysema and chronic bronchitis.”

That’s because when you burn marijuana – however you prefer to burn marijuana – it creates many of the same toxins as tobacco smoke. Of course, those chemicals can wreak havoc on delicate lung tissue.

In fact, a 2022 Canadian study showed that smoking marijuana causes similar, if not more, damage to the lungs as smoking conventional cigarettes.

What about vaping, which doesn’t involve fire? It’s been linked to lung disease too.

“Vaping doesn’t contain products of combustion, but it does have products that go directly into the lungs, which can cause a reaction,” says Dr. Salner. “There’s a risk of injury to lung tissue from flavors and other compounds, as we saw with a rash of vaping-induced lung injuries in past years.”

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Smoking marijuana may lead to lung cancer.

Here’s what we can’t say for sure, but strongly suspect.

At present, no research exists to directly link smoking marijuana to lung cancer. But unfortunately, because of the similarities between marijuana and tobacco smoke, many scientists believe it’s only a matter of time.

Remember, it can take several decades for lung cancer to appear after smoking cigarettes. “A lot of people who had tobacco use in their teens, 20s and onward see cancer in their 60s,” notes Dr. Salner. That lag time (“latent period,” to use the technical term) is likely true for smoking marijuana too.

So until we have the results of a rigorous 30- or 40-year study, many scientists simply point to what we know from tobacco research.

“I suspect if you asked 100 scientists if smoking marijuana causes lung cancer, the majority would say yes,” says Dr. Salner, “because it contains the same toxins and carcinogens that tobacco smoke contains. In fact, it is speculated that a single marijuana cigarette may contain the same carcinogen content as 10-20 conventional cigarettes.”

What about edibles, tinctures and mouth sprays?

When Dr. Salner certifies patients to receive medical marijuana — usually, to ease symptoms from cancer or its treatment — he often recommends fast-acting oral tinctures or mouth sprays (or tablets or edibles, which take longer to kick in).

“Our general recommendation is not to smoke or vape cannabis, but take it through the oral route,” he says. “Those forms don’t appear to cause lung damage, because they don’t have products of combustion or inhaled chemicals in them.”

He offers another word of caution too.

“Illegal marijuana probably contains additional risky pesticides, mold, fungus and chemicals,” says Dr. Salner — risks you don’t need. However you take your marijuana, make sure it’s from a trusted source.

With Connecticut’s medical marijuana industry well established, and recreational retail about to take off, you should have your pick.

Interested in a lung cancer screening?

Screening can save lives! Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, but people whose lung cancer is diagnosed early are nearly 10 times more likely to live longer.

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