Updated September 2022
Smoking cigarettes was popular in the United States for many years, but then the truth about their dangers came out. Reports of lung cancer caused by cigarettes and tobacco skyrocketed. Many people quit, but for others, it was too late. By that point, they were already hooked, and the tobacco had already caused a fair amount of damage. Now, with recreational marijuana rising in popularity, similar questions arise, including: is marijuana safer than tobacco? Treatment professionals at our Banyan Chicago rehab found out some interesting facts when comparing marijuana vs. tobacco.
To properly compare nicotine and cannabis, you must first understand what nicotine is and how it works. Nicotine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that speeds up nerve activity in the brain and spinal cord. It is the main psychoactive ingredient in tobacco products like cigars, cigarettes, pipe tobacco, and wet and dry snuff. Even E-cigarettes that do not contain tobacco may contain nicotine.
While people who are not accustomed to smoking cigarettes or ingesting nicotine may experience uncomfortable side effects like dizziness, headache, and nausea, long-time users may experience other side effects like:
Nicotine’s mechanism of action is like those of other CNS stimulants, which work by activating the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine in the brain. These drugs then inhibit the reuptake of these chemicals, flooding the brain with dopamine and serotonin. As a result, the body undergoes a euphoric high. This is what makes nicotine so addictive.
In the case of THC, it stimulates neurons in the brain’s reward system to release elevated levels of dopamine, producing its euphoric and calming effects.
While cigarettes tend to be the most well-known, there are several different types of tobacco products, including cigars, smokeless tobacco, dissolvables, and most electronic cigarettes. Although containing tobacco in several different forms and amounts, all these products can be dangerous to a person’s health, especially with continued use. E-cigarettes have risen in popularity with the youth in recent years. While they are marketed as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, the long-term effects of vaping are still concerning.
In a way, yes. The nicotine in tobacco is considered a central nervous system stimulant, making tobacco products that contain nicotine addictive. Tobacco can lead to serious health consequences with regular ingestion. It is responsible for 5 million deaths a year and is the leading cause of premature death around the world.1 The World Health Organization suggests that tobacco use is linked to cardiovascular problems, respiratory disease, and over 20 different subtypes of cancer. Even repeated secondhand smoke exposure can lead to serious health complications.2 Along with being dangerous to your health, tobacco products are highly addictive. Many people struggle to quit even when they are faced with these health problems. Some research also suggests that tobacco products are like gateway drugs that could lead to harder drug abuse which usually requires formal substance abuse treatment to stop.3
With a quick glance, many people comparing marijuana vs. tobacco will be quick to assume that marijuana is safer than tobacco. Medicinal marijuana is currently used to treat two rare forms of epilepsy, and some researchers believe its use could extend to the treatment of various other ailments.4 While promising, the FDA has not yet approved the marijuana plant because not enough studies have been done to determine if the benefits of this medicine outweigh the risks. This sparks a new question: is weed worse than cigarettes?
When looking at weed vs. tobacco, you will find that research on the short and long-term effects of marijuana is still limited. Some studies suggest that regular use may negatively impact brain development. Its use has also been linked to other harmful mental and physical health effects, such as an increased risk of heart attack, respiratory problems, and severe nausea.5 Although the health implications of tobacco vs. weed seem far less concerning, more research could reveal other potential health problems that may be more serious.
When comparing weed vs. cigarettes, it is also important to look at their potential for addiction. Because of nicotine, tobacco products tend to be highly addictive. To many people’s surprise, marijuana is also addictive. Some research suggests that as many as 30% of marijuana users have some degree of a marijuana-use disorder.6 There is also evidence to suggest that both marijuana and tobacco are gateway drugs.7 What starts as occasionally getting high could eventually land someone in an inpatient or outpatient program for addiction. These little-known facts about marijuana make it potentially more dangerous than many people realize.
Unless using medicinal marijuana for purposes prescribed by your doctor, using cannabis and nicotine could be hazardous for your health. At our Chicago addiction treatment center, we help people overcome their substance abuse problems before they escalate.