tent evidence that either substance poses a greater health risk than the other. On the one hand, marijuana joints have been shown to deliver at least four times as much tar to the lungs as tobacco cigarettes of equivalent weight. This difference is due to the lack of filters on joints and because marijuana smokers typically inhale a larger volume of smoke and take it more deeply into the lungs than tobacco smokers do. Marijuana smokers also tend to hold smoke in for a time before exhaling, exposing the lungs to even greater levels of cancer-causing agents.
On the other hand, because they are packed more tightly, commercial cigarettes produce more smoke than hand-rolled joints. That, plus the fact that most tobacco users typically smoke more cigarettes per day than their marijuana-using counterparts, means that over the course of a day most tobacco users take far more smoke into their lungs than people who smoke marijuana exclusively. Thus it is impossible to make precise comparisons between the damage to one's health caused by smoking marijuana versus the damage caused by smoking tobacco. And since an estimated 70 percent of marijuana users also smoke tobacco, it is difficult to conduct epidemiological studies that isolate the effects of marijuana smoking.
Not surprisingly, clinical studies suggest that people who smoke marijuana are more likely to develop respiratory illnesses than are nonsmokers. A survey of outpatient medical visits at a large health maintenance organization (HMO) found that marijuana users were more likely to seek help for respiratory illnesses than people who smoked neither marijuana or tobacco.1 However, the researchers also found that patients who had smoked marijuana for more than 10 years did not seek treatment for respiratory illness with any greater frequency than those who had smoked it for less than 10 years. One possible explanation for this finding is that the people who continued smoking for a long time had not been troubled by respiratory problems such as shortness of breath, while those who did develop uncomfortable symptoms quit smoking relatively quickly. Unfortunately, the marijuana smokers who responded to this survey were not asked if they also used cocaine, which is known to intensify respiratory symptoms. It is also likely that some participants underreported their use of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.