Should marijuana users be worried that smoking causes oral cancer?

For decades, oral cancer was strictly linked to tobacco and alcohol abuse. However in recent years, new cases of oral cancer among nontobacco users have been linked to the HPV virus, and oral cancer awareness has become more mainstream with high-profile patients. As a great number of nontobacco users use marijuana habitually, it begs the question, Does marijuana use cause oral cancer? Dr. Iman Sadri addresses the question here.

Marijuana Leaf Dreamstime

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Marijuana Leaf DreamstimeThe last decade has seen oral cancer awareness become more mainstream with high-profile patients. Adam Yauch, a member of the Beastie Boys, succumbed to oral cancer of the parotid gland in 2013. Academy Award winner Michael Douglas spent much of the past few years in the public eye battling Stage IV throat cancer, incidentally discovered by his periodontist. For decades, oral cancer was strictly linked to tobacco and alcohol abuse. However, new cases of oral cancer among nontobacco users have been linked to the HPV virus, best known for its cervical cancer link. A great number of nontobacco users do use marijuana habitually, however, begging the question, Does marijuana use cause oral cancer?

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Due to an increase in national marijuana usage, state-by-state legalization, and an overall laissez-faire societal view, questions have arisen relating marijuana use to oral cancer development. Does the smoke from marijuana or the properties associated with its chemical nature lead to oral cancer? The overall consensus among researchers is no. According to Norml.org, cannabis smoke — unlike tobacco smoke — has not been definitively linked to cancer in humans. Cannabis smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as tobacco smoke … but just not the cancer-causing carcinogens. In fact, cannabis also contains cannabinoids, such as THC, which contain anticancer properties. Some of these anticancer properties include the slowing of the inflammatory arm of the immune system designed to slow free-radical growths. These free radicals are the unstable atoms that lead to cancer progression. Some researchers link medicinal marijuana to these anticancer properties. Long-term smoking of marijuana combined with tobacco does, however, lead to lung cell metaplasia and the development of precancerous lung cells. Marijuana use on its own does not merit definitive oral cancer development, according to research.

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Direct application of tobacco, as with chewing tobacco, has the highest incidence of oral cancer causation.

Patients of mine here in Orange County routinely ask me about the correlation between marijuana use and oral cancer development. They wonder if long-term use of marijuana through the various channels of inhalation, including smoke and vaporization, can cause oral cancer. I tell them, much to their enthrallment, that the risk between recreational marijuana use and oral cancer is low. But unless it’s deemed a medical necessity, that shouldn't encourage them to get high.

DrimansadriIman Sadri, DDS, is a cosmetic dentist and writer. He is a 2008 graduate of the NYU College of Dentistry and maintains a private practice in Orange County, Calif.

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