Smoke from the combustion of any plant material, be it tobacco, cannabis or a leaf from the tree outside, produces a lot of toxins and carcinogens. Smoking any plant material or even sitting next to a wood-fueled campfire will all lead to exposure to these substances, resulting in compromised cardiovascular function and other negative health effects. The pattern of abnormalities associated with cannabis smoking, as has been discovered thus far, seems to differ from tobacco smoking, but the two are still a means to the same end if smoked consistently and in large quantities. Smoking anything at all is unhealthy, and if alternative methods of consumption are available, they’re highly recommended above smoking.
Recent research has indicated that secondhand cannabis smoke impairs the cardiovascular system even more than secondhand tobacco smoke. It impairs the blood vessels’ ability to dilate, and seems to last longer for cannabis smoke than it does for tobacco smoke.
An important distinction to make here is that the negative side effects of cannabis smoking comes specifically from the combustion of plant matter, not the inhalation of cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, themselves. Cardiovascular issues are observed even in studies where all cannabinoids have been removed from the smoke inhalation. Alternative methods of smoking cannabis, such as vaporization, should be considered if one wishes to avoid the negative side effects.
Comprehensive and extensive research has been conducted on tobacco smoke, linking it to an array of lung and other issues, most drastically lung cancer. In contrast, very few studies have been conducted on the possible risks of cannabis smoke as the plant remains a Schedule I controlled substance. Due to this lack of research, a link to cannabis smoking and lung cancer has not been discerned, but that doesn’t mean one couldn’t, or doesn’t, exist at all. A limited number of well-designed epidemiologic studies, however, suggest that the risk for lung or otherwise-related cancers from cannabis smoke is far lower than that of tobacco.
Further research suggests that the cannabinoids found in the smoke alongside the carcinogens may play a role. THC and CBD have both been shown to have anticancer and antioxidant properties, and may counteract many of the carcinogens that are also inhaled while smoking.
Another key way that cannabis smoke differs from that of tobacco is its effects on the immune system. In general, cannabis has anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects, which are beneficial to patients suffering from inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease or multiple sclerosis. On the other hand, since regular cannabis smoking causes airway issues, the immunosuppressive effects may leave regular smokers more susceptible to respiratory infections. This is another area that requires much more research than the US Government is willing to allow.
The anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory capacity of cannabinoids are well established, and these agents have a broad therapeutic potential in various inflammatory diseases, including cardiovascular diseases.
To recap the discoveries of dozens of scientific studies and papers done on this subject, overall, the negative effects of smoking cannabis may be lower than that of tobacco in regards to lung health. Cannabis is associated with lung function abnormalities, but the pattern of these abnormalities is different than that of tobacco. Regular cannabis smoking can cause physical airway damage and is associated with the symptoms of bronchitis. Secondhand cannabis smoke exposure leads to impairments in cardiovascular function. There is no compelling evidence that cannabis smoke leads to obstructive airway disease or emphysema, and evidence suggests it helps to reduce arterial plaque and reduce the inflammation that causes it. A limited number of high-quality studies have failed to find a link between cannabis smoking and lung or upper airway cancers for occasional or moderate consumer. There is mixed evidence for increased cancer risk in heavy, long-term cannabis smokers, but to date, despite decades of research, a link between cannabis smoking and lung cancer has never been found. Alternative methods of cannabis consumption, such as vaporizers, edibles, tinctures and more, do not carry any of the risks associated with cannabis smoke inhalation.
Numerous things are happening when utilizing a bong, or smaller bubbler, while consuming cannabis. Burning cannabis produces a smoke stream that contains all the things you want, such as THC, CBD, other cannabinoids and terpenes, and a lot of the things you don’t, such as hot smoke, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, aka PAHs, hundreds of carcinogenic compounds generally referred to as “tar,” and fine particulate matter, aka ash. Along with cooling each inhalation, or “hit,” the water (or other liquid) inside the bong filters out the ash that would otherwise end up in your mouth, such as when smoking a joint or pipe. There’s also a certain amount of tar that is filtered out of each hit as well, which is why bong water eventually turns a sickly brown after numerous uses.
Studies conducted in California have shown that bongs filter more water-soluble psychoactive cannabinoids than tar and polucarbons, which means the user has to smoke more marijuana to get an effective high, because the tar-to-cannabinoid ratio is now more skewed towards tar. The amount of research on the effectiveness of bongs and bubblers is very low, and as such, an air of speculation and debate surrounds the effectiveness of these tools. A. J. Fabrizio, Director of Research for the LA-based medical cannabis company Terra Tech, states that the amaunt of cannabinoids lost in the water of a bong is negligible, and that many cannabinoids and terpenes found within cannabis have nearly zero water solubility. This is why cannabis concentrate-makers use nonpolar solvents such as butane to extract cannabinoids from plant matter, instead of traditional water.
The main draw for many to using bongs and bubblers is their ability to cool and filter the smoke through water, offering a smoother draw even with larger hits. Bongs tend to maintain the aromas and tastes of the strain as well, and the lower amounts of tar and ash you’re inhaling in general, the better.