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Is Vaping Safer? New Study Explores The Relationship Between Your High And How You Consume Cannabis

As cannabis legalization has expanded, the number of ways we consume it have grown and diversified. The traditional smoke session and the classic pot brownie are far from dead, but in recent years, vaping has gained much more use and attention. 

Vaporizers offer a unique set of benefits: portability, discretion, and ease of use. Different kinds of vapes can be used to smoke flower (dry herb vaporizers) or cannabis concentrates. Furthermore, vaping avoids the actual combustion of cannabis, so it’s often perceived to be a healthier option than smoking.

However, since the e-cigarette or vaping product-use-associated lung injury (EVALI) epidemic gained attention in the summer of 2019, caution and concern have grown around young adults’ use of vapes. We’ve witnessed growing fear that the ease of vaping and the high potency of cannabis oil and concentrates may result in an increase in vaping among young adults, in turn raising their risks of EVALI or other negative health effects associated with cannabis use.

Yet, we’re largely in the dark with respect to how young adults use cannabis on a day-to-day basis—what modes they use, how much and how frequently they’re consuming, and how high they get—so it’s challenging to assess their risks. A group of researchers at Penn State University aims to change that. In their new paper published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, a team led by Renee Cloutier reported detailed, granular data about how route of administration (the way one uses a substance) is associated with cannabis consumption and intoxication.

Why Haven’t We Studied This Yet?

These associations have been notoriously difficult to study because there are so many factors to control for (e.g., age, gender, tolerance, social context, use of other substances, etc.), and because the cannabis research field still hasn’t come to consensus about how to measure the amount of cannabis consumed. Cloutier says, “without this step, researchers have very little way of measuring the effects cannabis has on health outcomes—good or bad.”

For this reason, Cloutier and her team used an intensive longitudinal study design, asking the 106 participants aged 18 to 25 to complete daily diary entries for two weeks. This methodology is well suited for investigating how people use substances and the effects those substances have in daily life. Participants fill out short surveys each day rather than ingest a substance in a clinical lab setting or try to recall their behavior and experiences days or weeks later. (Neither of those methods tells us much about how people actually use cannabis in their normal environments.)

This more individualized longitudinal methodology allows the researchers to identify differences between study participants, as well as within each participant (how behavior and intoxication varied from day to day for each individual), thereby collecting more precise, accurate, and powerful information than could be gleaned from a retrospective study.

And what the authors found is indeed powerful. Cloutier says, ”Our study looked at two outcomes: self-reported number of hits taken on a cannabis use day and subjective ratings on intoxication. These help us see that young adults consume more on days they smoke blunts than when the same young adults vape cannabis. This also helps us see that people feel more intoxicated on days they use bongs than vaporizers, even when controlling for how much they consumed that day and across the 14-day study period.”

vaping bong
According to new research, young adults consume more cannabis on days they smoke blunts than when they are vaping cannabis, and feel more intoxicated on days they use bongs than vaporizers.

From these data as well as from prior studies linking intoxication levels to consequences, Cloutier begins to make inferences: being more intoxicated may have higher risks, and inhaling toxins and residual tobacco from blunts make be riskier to health relative to glass pipes, joints, or vaporizers.

There has also been widespread concern that vaping cannabis might lead to increased consumption and intoxication, possibly leading to long-term problems. However, that’s not what Cloutier and her team observed. They saw cannabis users take fewer hits and reach lower levels of intoxication when they used vaporizers than other methods.

So, Is Vaping Safer?

That said, there’s still reason to be concerned about vaping. For one thing, we still don’t have a full picture. Cloutier acknowledges that “one of our major study limitations is that we did not actually ask whether people were using oil/concentrates versus dry herbs,” a distinction that often gets overlooked in the research domain, but may actually represent wide variation in the safety of various devices that are being marketed to consumers, particularly in regions where these products are unregulated.

Big Tobacco has already entered the cannabis product sector, investing heavily in the nascent industry. This is particularly concerning with respect to vaping, where we still need much more research to understand the complex health effects and product safety.

In an article published in the British Medical Journal, Timothy Dewhirst, professor of marketing and public policy at the University of Guelph, writes, “As cannabis becomes increasingly integrated as part of a ‘wellness’ platform by multinational tobacco companies, questions continue about the suitability of having Big Tobacco—the producers of addictive and harmful products with a documented history of deceit and intentional marketing to vulnerable populations—oversee a supposed mission of ‘harm reduction.’”

When powerful lobby groups and interests like Big Tobacco are invested in cannabis, and vaporizers in particular, we should be especially wary about the safety of the products they’re profiting from. Cloutier emphasizes this point, saying, “When you look at the various vaporizer devices and products that companies are developing and advertising to consumers as ‘safe’ and which end up causing severe lung damage or exploding in people’s pockets, it is clear that the public needs more independent research to directly substantiate or debunk claims of superiority and safety of certain devices and products.”

Cloutier adds that the safety of different products is a question that should be decided not by a single study or team, but by independent regulatory agencies that have the resources for rigorous safety evaluation and population-level monitoring.

Future Directives

Indeed, if we want to use research to leverage public health policy solutions, we need future research to directly study health consequences in order to give us a more comprehensive picture. Cloutier suggests more research in larger, more nationally representative samples that consider systemic factors (such as access or policing of paraphernalia) that dictate why people may select certain modes of administration. Her team is already conducting more detailed research on the effects of cannabis and subjective states of intoxication to bolster their current research. In order to eventually create effective policy, we need to continue building a strong evidence base.

Still, in combination with the results from other studies, Cloutier already sees opportunities to translate these findings into policies, such as centering initiatives to improve the safety and monitoring of cannabis devices and products as well as reduce the harms associated with use. We have a long way to go in understanding the relative safety of various products, but Cloutier’s research begins to tease apart the complexity of different modes of administration, offering a promising new direction for future research and policy.

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