Study: Vaping marijuana worse for lungs than smoking cigarettes

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — While vaping and marijuana advocates argue that their products are a safer option than smoking cigarettes, a new study is sending a strong rebuttal against both. Researchers at the University of Michigan find adolescents who vape marijuana will likely suffer more lung damage than their peers who smoke cigarettes or cannabis or only vape nicotine.

Study authors looked the self-reported respiratory symptoms of 12 to 17-year-olds in the 2016-2018 Wave of the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health Study. The results came as a shock to principal investigator Carol Boyd, who says their findings challenge the conventional wisdom about vaping and nicotine.

“I thought that e-cigarettes (vaping nicotine) would be the nicotine product most strongly associated with worrisome respiratory symptoms,” Boyd says in a university release.

“Our data challenges the assumption that smoking cigarettes or vaping nicotine is the most harmful to the lungs. If we control for vaping cannabis in our analyses, we find there is a weaker relationship between e-cigarette or cigarette use and respiratory symptoms when compared to vaping cannabis.”

The study looked closely at respiratory issues including wheezing and whistling in the chest, sleep problems, wheezing during exercise, and dry coughs.

There is no good option when it comes to smoking and vaping

Boyd, who is co-director of Michigan’s Center for Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health, cautions that these results don’t mean smoking is now somehow healthy. In fact, researchers say smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana, and vaping nicotine all cause symptoms of lung injury in the study. Vaping marijuana, however, appears to the cause the most amount of respiratory trouble.

“In short, it is all bad but if you also vape cannabis you have a greater number of unhealthy respiratory symptoms than if you just smoke cigarettes or marijuana, or vape e-cigarettes,” Boyd explains. “Without a doubt, cigarettes and e-cigarettes are unhealthy and not good for lungs. However, vaping marijuana appears even worse.”

Boyd and study co-author Philip Veliz discovered that adolescents who reported vaping marijuana were nearly twice as likely to have “wheezing and whistling” in their chests. Using cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and smoking cannabis all contributed to lung injury symptoms like dry cough, but these links did not match the significance of vaping cannabis.

Study authors find only one thing that has a stronger connection to future lung injury than these habits — receiving an asthma diagnosis. The U-M team notes that the new study does not factor in the impact of adolescents vaping and smoking simultaneously.

“Future studies need to assess if it is the combination of vaping both nicotine and cannabis that is creating so many respiratory issues,” Veliz says. “It may be the combination of vaping cannabis along with smoking cigarettes is what leads to the high rates of respiratory symptoms among youthful marijuana vapers.”

The study appears in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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