Article written by
Tina MagrabiSenior Content Writer
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
Tobacco and cannabis may seem similar — they’re both from plants and can be smoked — but research shows that tobacco may pose more health risks than cannabis.
Tobacco is legal for adult use, while cannabis is illegal at the federal level. Classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, cannabis remains illegal to carry across state lines, and some states have yet to implement even a medical marijuana program.
This difference in legal status is striking, considering that the nicotine found in tobacco has been cited as one of the most addictive substances in the world, alongside heroin, cocaine, barbiturates, and alcohol. Cannabis was notably missing from that list of most addictive substances. Moreover, cannabis smoke and tobacco smoke are different, with cannabis smoke being considered to be less carcinogenic (cancer-causing).
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What Is Tobacco?
Tobacco is a plant cultivated for its leaves that go through a drying and fermenting process. After this process, tobacco products like cigarettes go into large-scale production.
How It Works
Wild tobacco is indigenous to the United States, Mexico, and South America. Humans have historically packed rolling papers and pipes with tobacco leaves to smoke. All tobacco products contain nicotine, a highly addictive drug. When nicotine is absorbed into the bloodstream, it triggers the brain to release adrenaline.
From there, the central nervous system (CNS) is stimulated, and dopamine levels rise. As dopamine is a chemical associated with reward-seeking behavior, nicotine is a difficult addiction to break. Furthermore, nicotine is a stimulant and therefore considered psychoactive.
In addition to tobacco’s use in cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, the plant has cultural significance. Native Americans have used the plant in prayer ceremonies and healing sessions. Other uses for tobacco include chewing tobacco and smoking loose leaves in a hookah (water) pipe.
Some traditional healers claim that tobacco fortifies the body and improves overall health. But the potential health benefits of tobacco are few, according to scientific research, and the plant has far more documented risks and drawbacks than rewards.
Risks and Drawbacks
The risks of cigarette smoking are numerous, and many are serious. It is important to note, though, that most of the health risks linked to smoking cigarettes come from chemicals other than nicotine. Here are some of the potential side effects of tobacco smoke:
- High blood pressure
- Lung and other types of cancer
- Chronic bronchitis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Heart disease and heart attack
Chewing tobacco is not healthier, and tobacco users have an increased risk of developing mouth cancer.
Similarities and Differences Between Tobacco and Cannabis
Both tobacco and marijuana use can make you feel euphoric when smoking due to a release of endorphins (“feel good” chemicals) in the brain. Both drugs are also considered psychoactive, but the nicotine in tobacco only has stimulant properties. The tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that naturally occurs in cannabis may have stimulant or sedating effects depending on the other compounds present.
Nicotine is believed to be more addictive than cannabis, although both drugs can lead to dependency. Quitting both drugs may lead to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, but nicotine may be harder to give up than cannabis.
Another difference between tobacco and cannabis is that tobacco is harmful when swallowed, but you can eat weed. In fact, edible consumption is one of the most popular ways to enjoy cannabis. Many people incorporate cannabis into recipes for sweet baked goods and savory dishes.
One more difference between tobacco and cannabis is that tobacco products are made from the leaves of the plant, while cannabis products are made from the buds or flower of the plant. Ultimately, tobacco and cannabis differ more than they are alike, and it’s up to you to decide which of these plants is best for you.
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How to Decide Which Is Best For You
Consider the following factors when deciding to use tobacco or cannabis.
When to Use Tobacco
With all the health risks linked to tobacco, it is difficult to recommend an instance to use the drug. The best advice is not to use tobacco at all.
When to Use Cannabis
Cannabis has been shown through scientific research to have many possible benefits and uses:
- ALS (A.K.A. Lou Gehrig’s Disease)
- Anxiety Disorders and Depression
- Cachexia or Wasting Syndrome (some states also consider anorexia or bulimia a qualifying condition)
- Cancer (and Chemotherapy Side-Effects)
- Chronic Pain (for some states, this expands to include migraines, headaches, and arthritis)
- Hepatitis C
- Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, in particular, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Neurodegenerative Diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease)
- Persistent Muscle Spasms and Cramps from conditions
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Seizures (e.g., from Epilepsy)
- Severe Nausea
- Spinal Cord Injuries or Diseases
The plant has even been tapped as a natural beauty treatment with the advent of CBD products. But cannabis does carry its own risks and drawbacks, and you should speak with a qualified medical marijuana physician or healthcare professional before starting a regimen.
The Bottom Line
Tobacco may be more addictive than cannabis due to the presence of nicotine. Smoking tobacco is associated with severe health risks. Smoking cannabis has not been linked to as many health risks as smoking tobacco, but inhaling any chemicals may be harmful. Cannabis use in other forms (topical, sublingual, and edible) has been shown to have many potential health benefits that tobacco does not appear to offer.
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