Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Marijuana and Cancer

The widespread use of marijuana and its growing social acceptability has now led to a political movement to legalize its use all over the country. Colorado has recently legalized marijuana and politicians have been quick to see the possibilities of tax revenues from legalized pot sales. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview a former street dealer boasted of his plans to become the Philip Morris of the new industry. Coincidentally, as marijuana use has become acceptable, cigarette smoking has become socially deplorable.

When I was a child we were warned not to smoke cigarettes. It wasn’t about cancer. This was years before the U.S. Surgeon General’s report warning of the dangers of smoking.  We were told that smoking would stunt our growth. I don’t recall that either my friends or I really believed it or paid too much attention. It was just another attempt on the part of adults to scare us into good behavior.

After all, our favorite celebrities and athletes were not only smokers but they were also featured on innumerable ads in print or on the radio. These were the days before TV. More than ads there was the incessant and glamorous smoking that we saw in the movies we attended every Saturday afternoon. Humphrey Bogart, a chain smoker who would eventually die of lung cancer, smoked constantly in his films. Smoking was part of his mystique as he played the suave and savvy saloon owner in Casablanca. In one of the most famous scenes in film history Paul Henreid lit up two cigarettes at the same time before handing one over to Bette Davis to seal their love. She herself would often blow smoke into the faces of her lovers.

Cigarettes were glamorous and exotic and favorite brands had glamorous and exotic names. “Camels” had the air of the Orient. Chesterfield and Pall Mall smacked of British elegance. Lucky Strike and Old Gold conjured up images of wealth and fortune.
Our favorite athletes smoked between innings at the ballpark and were featured in a barrage of ads aimed at their young worshippers. They were men and it was a manly thing to do. The ad campaign built around the rugged “Marlboro Man” topped them all.

For some strange reason that I still don’t understand I never smoked. I was never an anti-smoking fanatic and could appreciate the pleasure people got from lighting up, especially after a good meal. Nevertheless, as the scientific evidence mounted it was hard for me to understand why people, including many doctors and nurses, would continue to smoke.

I have neither smoked marijuana either but it in my opinion pot is at the same stage as cigarettes when I was a child. Smoking pot was thought to be so dangerous that it was illegal to use or sell it. Nevertheless, millions of people refused to believe that it was dangerous or argued that the good effects far outweighed the bad. Then, over the past 50 years as cigarette smoking became viewed as a disgusting habit, pot smoking attained popularity among the celebrities of a new generation. Today, popular entertainers openly flaunt its use on national television. Merely mentioning pot on late night shows will elicit raucous applause. They have spearheaded a cultural revolution that has made opposition to marijuana seem pig-headed and obsolete.

I wonder though if marijuana might turn out to be as dangerous as cigarette smoking. I’m not talking about being “stoned” or losing brain capacity, but about the possibility that marijuana smoking could be just as serious a cancer-causing agent as cigarettes. At this point in time, there have been hardly any long-term scientific studies since marijuana was illegal. Just consider these points that showed up on a quick web search.

“Many of the carcinogens and co-carcinogens present in tobacco smoke are also present in smoke from marijuana.”

“Marijuana smoking does cause inflammation and cell damage, and it has been associated with pre-cancerous changes in lung tissue.”

“Marijuana has been shown to cause immune system dysfunction, possibly predisposing individuals to cancer.”

One study conducted in Sweden of about 50000 young men eligible for military service concluded,

“Our findings do raise concern about the potential long-term lung cancer risk associated with marijuana use in adolescence and young adulthood—a time of pronounced lung development—especially given the possibility that such marijuana smoking may occur during a ‘critical period’ of lung cancer susceptibility to carcinogens in marijuana smoke.”

I’m sure that other studies will follow but I wonder if the current Surgeon General of the United States is interested in the subject. I have never heard the subject discussed by the media. In the past year, my local newspaper has run many stories and editorials on the value of medical marijuana but nothing about cancer risks. They and other media outlets routinely criticize the tobacco industry but are silent when it comes to marijuana. “Doonesbury,” a popular political newspaper cartoon features a despicable character in the form of a cigarette who plumps for the tobacco industry. The author of the strip has so far failed to create an equally despicable symbol of the growing marijuana industry.

I'm not calling for a new war on marijuana but I do think that it's time for today's celebrities to desist from glorifying their pot smoking. They may find that like the celebrities and athletes of old, they were just blowing smoke in our faces.


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