It’s the one nobody talks about.
Parents tell their kids not to start smoking because it causes lung cancer. Millions of adult smokers decide to quit, because of the danger of lung cancer. Cigarette packages carry all sorts of warnings, but the majority warns of lung cancer.
No one talks about throat cancer, though.
Throat cancer falls into the umbrella category of “head and neck cancer,” which also includes tumors of the mouth, tongue, and voice box. It’s certainly not as common as lung cancer, but an estimated 66,000 Americans contract head and neck cancer each year, and nearly 25% of them die from it.
And virtually all cases of head and neck cancer – including throat cancer – are caused by smoking.
Is it only tobacco smoking that causes this underestimated, painful, and often fatal disease? Or can smoking weed cause throat cancer too?
Not many researchers have looked at that question, but a few have. Here’s what they’ve discovered.
Types Of Head, Neck, And Throat Cancer
We’ve expanded this discussion to include all forms of “oral” cancer, not only because that’s how most medical professionals view the category, but because the studies involving cannabis looked at all forms of head and neck cancer.
If smoking weed does indeed cause those types of tumors, though, throat cancer would be among the most likely possibilities. Just as with cigarette smoking, there is repeated contact between the smoke and the throat during the action of smoking.
There are many different areas where these cancers can develop. Tumors can originate in the upper or lower portions of the voice box, in the vocal cords, in the trachea, in the tonsils, and behind the mouth, and they can even start behind the nose. (Problems like brain cancer and thyroid cancer aren’t considered to be “head and neck” cancers, even though the brain is obviously located in the head and the thyroid is in the neck.)
All of these “head and neck” areas we’re discussing are regularly exposed to smoke, and tobacco smoke is known to regularly cause cancer in all of them. Tumors in areas like the lip and mouth are more commonly associated with the use of smokeless tobacco.
In short, cancer can originate throughout the head and neck. And tobacco smoke is blamed, in large measure, for most of those tumors.
Let’s talk about weed smoke.
Weed Smoke vs. Tobacco Smoke
Just like cigarette smokers, weed smokers are more susceptible to developing sore throats, chronic coughs (pardon the pun), and bronchitis.
The smoke of all types – even the smoke from a campfire – irritates the respiratory tract. Even worse, it damages the cilia in the bronchial tract, which are supposed to clear irritants from the system. It also induces the body to create more mucus, which is difficult for damaged cilia to clear.
And contrary to what many devoted cannabis smokers believe (or convince themselves to believe), there are carcinogens in weed smoke.
In fact, about 30% of the cancer-causing substances in tobacco smoke, like hydrogen cyanide and ammonia, are present in marijuana smoke. And pot smoke contains even higher levels of several of the most hazardous substances (including benzanthracene and benzopyrene).
That’s why the relatively few studies investigating the connection between cannabis smoking and lung cancer are inconclusive. It seems pretty clear that weed isn’t as likely to lead to lung cancer as cigarettes are, but experts still aren’t sure whether there’s a real risk of developing lung tumors after years of habitual marijuana smoking. It’s definitely possible, though, particularly since pot smokers inhale more “tar” into their body, and hold it longer, than cigarette smokers.
What about the throat, head, and neck? There’s no doubt that tobacco use is one of the two major causes of cancer in those areas; the other is alcohol consumption. When tobacco and alcohol use are combined, the risk of head and neck cancer rises dramatically. It’s believed that almost all cases of squamous cell carcinomas of the mouth and voice box, for example, can be blamed on the concurrent use of tobacco and alcohol.
That brings us to weed. Carcinogenic chemicals, of course, cause cancer. And since 30% of the carcinogens in tobacco smoke are also in marijuana smoke, that would imply that marijuana smokers’ risk of throat cancer would be somewhere around 30% of the risk experienced by cigarette smokers. That’s not an insignificant number.
At one point, all we could go on was intuition and theory. But then researchers began to look deeper.
Weed Smoke And Head/Neck Cancer
The first “big” study was conducted at UCLA about 20 years ago. We use quotation marks because none of the research on this subject involved a large number of cases; this one considered 173 patients with cancer of the head or neck.
Once the data was filtered to eliminate the effects of cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption, the researchers say there was a significant relationship between weed smoking and either head or neck cancer. Patients who had smoked cannabis more frequently, and/or over a longer period of time, had a greater chance of developing having throat, voice box, or mouth cancer.
The details were sobering. Generally speaking, weed smokers were 2.6 times more likely to develop one of the cancers – and nearly five times more likely if they smoked up more than once per day. And patients who had a specific genetic predisposition to cancer were 77 times more likely to develop throat cancer than those without that genetic marker. Concurrent cigarette smoking increased those risks even more.
The UCLA results spurred several other studies, which unfortunately ended up confusing the issue.
All concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to definitively link head and neck cancers with cannabis use and that more research is needed to rule the possibility in or out. However, all of those studies also looked at a very small group of patients, between 75 and 400. That’s an extremely small group on which to base any firm conclusions.
So we’re more or less back where we started. Can smoking weed cause throat cancer? Even the experts don’t know the answer just yet.
It would certainly seem to make sense, considering the carcinogens in marijuana smoke and the cancer-causing effect of similar substances in tobacco smoke. But until there’s more, non-contradictory medical evidence, it’s simply impossible to say for certain.
Can Smoking Weed Cause Throat Cancer? FAQ
Q: Is vaping weed any safer?
A: There’s only a small amount of research on vaping. We know there are far fewer carcinogens in marijuana vapor than there are in smoke, and we know that vaping does less damage to the respiratory tract (although it still does do some damage). Beyond that, experts don’t even know if there’s a correlation between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, let alone throat cancer. So they know even less about vaping weed.
Q: But doesn’t cannabis smoke also fight cancer?
A: There are some studies indicating that it might prevent or fight some types of cancer. It’s not known, though, whether those properties might counteract or limit the potential cancer-causing impact of pot smoking.
Q: Is there anything you can do to limit the possible effects of weed smoking on the head, neck, and throat?
A: One, of course, is to consume cannabis via edibles or tinctures (or give up weed entirely). Assuming that’s not in your plans, it’s a good idea to have regular dental checkups twice a year. That won’t catch all types of head and neck cancer early, needless to say. But it will allow dentists to discover mouth lesions in their early stages and may indicate that further medical follow-up is needed.