Vaping cannabis ‘more dangerous than smoking cigarettes’! Or is it?

Good science, bad science, somewhere-between (which is probably most) science: if you’re interested in e-cigarettes, their purpose, their effects and their future, you can’t get away from all kinds of science. And as this blog has remarked before, the headlines don’t ever tell the whole story (or even always tell the story at all).

This week’s most prominent vaping story has come with headlines like “Teens vaping pot face more health risk than cigarette smokers”. Which turns out on examination – like so many stories and beliefs about vaping (or indeed “pot”) – to be not the truth, not the whole truth, and nothing much like the truth.

Look below the headline and you’ll find it’s based on a rather flimsy piece of science conducted at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. A study that might have helped a few student nurses learn a bit about conducting surveys but otherwise adds little to the sum of human knowledge.

What it found – based not on any clinical evidence but purely on self-reporting of a narrow and specific set of symptoms, all based around “wheezing” or “dry cough at night” – was that adolescents who vape cannabis are at greater risk of those particular “symptoms indicative of lung injury” than those who smoke cigarettes or marijuana, or vape nicotine.

Which is no doubt interesting, but poses a lot more questions than it answers. Prominent among which, in the light of what we ultimately learned about the 2019 outbreak of lung disease now dubbed EVALI, is: what else were the cannabis-vapers breathing in? Was it the cannabis itself making them wheezy, or perhaps an additive such as vitamin E acetate? A vital question not only unanswered, but apparently unasked in the research.


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    Challenging assumptions


    Though the study involved a fairly impressive sample of almost 15,000 students, other caveats include its anecdotal nature, with participants asked to recall past experience, taking no account of how their memory might have been swayed by media coverage of EVALI and possible associated fears.alThere was, in other words – as in so much research of this type – a preconceived bias built in from the start. Even if the results were not, apparently, what the lead researcher expected.

    Professor Carol Boyd reported: “I thought that e-cigarettes (vaping nicotine) would be the nicotine product most strongly associated with worrisome respiratory symptoms.” (Is she really describing cannabis vapes here as “nicotine product”?)

    She went on: “Our data challenges the assumption that smoking cigarettes or vaping nicotine is the most harmful to the lungs.”

    In truth, though, it doesn’t challenge it very hard, since the study failed to consider at all such things as cancer, emphysema, or any other long-term lung issues. Not to mention heart or vascular conditions, or indeed anything else with an established connection to smoking.

    Which means that the conclusion drawn by at least one report of the report – that vaping weed is more dangerous than smoking it – is not merely misleading but probably plain wrong. Potentially dangerously so.

    Author default picture

    Aidan Semmens