Smoking marijuana is legal in many states but that doesn’t mean it comes without serious health risks. A new study found that rates of emphysema and airway inflammation were higher in marijuana smokers than in cigarette smokers. This interesting finding is significant as it debunks the theory that smoking marijuana is much safer and healthier than smoking cigarettes.

Dr. Revah along with other researchers from the University of Ottawa believes the reason behind the incidence of emphysema may lie in the method of inhaling as users deeply inhale these particles with a longer breath hold, unlike tobacco users.

Marijuana is the most frequently used illicit psychoactive substance and is now the most smoked substance after tobacco in many states in the US. Following its legalization in 2018, its production and use has skyrocketed ever since.

While there is extensive knowledge of the damage cigarettes have on the lungs, however, little is known about marijuana. Prior studies on the link between marijuana and lung health have been conducted with results remaining rather inconclusive. This prompted the researchers to investigate if smoking marijuana accompanied any major lung damage.

The study published in the peer-reviewed journal Radiology looked at chest CT scans of 56 marijuana smokers, 57 non-smokers, and 33 tobacco-only smokers conducted between 2005 to 2020. Researchers found that there was an increased rate of emphysema among those who smoked marijuana compared to tobacco-only smokers.

A certain subset of emphysema called Paraseptal emphysema was also found to be more prominent among marijuana users. It occurs in the back part of the lungs and causes swelling and damage to the tissue of the air sacs. In addition, gynecomastia, which is an excessive development of the breast in men caused by hormone imbalance, was more common among 38 percent of marijuana users compared to 11 percent and 16 percent found in cigarette smokers and non-smokers, respectively.

Again, there was also a higher rate of emphysema and airway inflammation identified among marijuana users who were above the age of 50 than tobacco-only smokers. Similarly, the CT scans also identified multiple series of inflammation in the airways among marijuana users than those who smoke cigarettes or not at all. This was despite the extensive smoking history of the tobacco smokers recorded by the study authors.

Researchers attribute the reasons for varying results in the groups to cigarettes being usually filtered whereas marijuana is not. And for this reason, more particulates are being introduced unfiltered into the lungs from smoking marijuana. This, therefore, prolongs and increases the time of exposure of these toxins to the lung’s surface. 

According to the American Lung Association, emphysema is a form of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States affecting over 12.5 million people.

Above all, it is clear that introducing these burning leaves into the lungs could as well inflict more harm to the lungs. The team, however, sees the need for further and larger studies on a large population to confirm and further validate their findings. Particularly since marijuana consumption is sure to rise in the future owing to its legalization for medical and recreational purposes. 

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