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Legalizing weed has anti-smoking activists worried

Ontario report found 31 per cent of cannabis smokers included tobacco in their joints

By Laura Sciarpelletti and Oscar Beardmore-Gray , in Feature story Health , on March 19, 2018 Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Some anti-smoking lobbyists and experts are concerned that legalizing cannabis this year could lead to increased tobacco use and sales.

According to an Ontario Tobacco Report United report, 31 per cent of cannabis smokers included tobacco in their joints. Adding tobacco to joints — or “spliffs” — gives some smokers a more pleasant, light-headed sensation in addition to the usual psychoactive, muscle-relaxing effects of weed.

“We’re quite concerned that these phenomenons might grow and more people might use both products and at the same time,” said Neil Collishaw, research director at Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. “This is doubly concerning because we have increasingly accurate information showing just how hazardous tobacco smoking is for heart disease and strokes.”

Other experts are not so concerned by legalization or any apparent correlation between tobacco and cannabis smoking.

However, some smokers say that cannabis is easier to give up than cigarettes in the long-term. And many switched to tobacco shortly after smoking weed.

“When I was younger, weed worked, but after a few yearsit made me crazy,” said Samantha Young, who has been a tobacco smoker for over 10 years. She gave up weed in high school easily, favouring a more controlled smoking experience over one that got her high. “Cigarettes have been a lot more difficult to quit.”

Results from a 2016 study by the Canadian Community Health Survey revealed that almost one-half of those who used cannabis on two or more occasions were current cigarette smokers, compared with 17 per cent of those who had used cannabis less frequently or not at all.

“The longest I quit smoking would have been five months,” said Gillian Davis, who has smoked both cannabis and tobacco since high school. “Smoking cigarettes feels better when you’re stoned. You get addicted to the actual smoking.”

The anti-smoking angle

Experts like Canadian Cancer Society senior policy analyst Rob Cunningham think that the government will need to regulate cannabis differently from tobacco. But the government will still need to warn of the negative effects of smoking.

“We can learn from the tobacco experience,” said Cunningham. “We had many decades of learning what works. A comprehensive policy is what has impact, and we know that packaging for tobacco makes a difference.” 

Cunningham also feels uncertainty surrounding the upcoming legalization. While cannabis does not pose the same cancer threats as tobacco, it still has negative health effects, particularly on the brain, says Cunningham.

“There are unknowns,” said Cunningham. “But there is concern that cannabis could make it easier for youth to begin smoking. People who smoke cannabis combine tobacco to make a cannabis cigarette, and that can lead to addiction.”

Many smokers choose to combine tobacco with cannabis when rolling joints

The federal Cannabis Act is going to have some significant restrictions on advertising and has regulatory authority over packaging. But regulations have yet to be announced, despite legalization coming into effect in this year.

The government will also need to be careful about what kind of advertising it allows, according to Cunningham.

“If the objective is to discourage smoking amongst youth, you probably don’t want to have Bob Marley or a Jamaican flag on the package, because that could make it more appealing and associate it with lifestyle messages,” said Cunningham.

Impairment will most likely be the focus of cannabis packaging warnings, rather than cancer risks. Increased heart rate, short-term memory problems, lowered blood pressure and irritation to lungs are just some of the proven negative effects of cannabis use. This will most likely be emphasized once legalization is put into effect, according to Cunningham.

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An increase in social smoking?

A major concern among health experts is social smoking. Many cigarette smokers often begin smoking socially, occasionally having a cigarette with friends or while drinking. This can sometimes lead to addiction.

The legalization of cannabis may increase social smoking, a concept that local tobacconists and dispensaries are hoping will grow after the legalization.

Quentin Kermeen, a smoke-shop sales associate in Vancouver, said he expects changes after the legalization. He predicts an upcoming emphasis on the social environment in the shop and around the act of smoking cannabis.

Quentin Kermeen works at a smoke shop in Gastown and is excited about legislative changes.

“Rather than just be a shop to buy stuff, we want people to come here to socialize,” said Kermeen. “I think we’re going to start a dab lounge.”

Kermeen says that the shop’s basement and music studio will start having food and drink gatherings. Many cannabis shops will put more of an emphasis on community building.

 “We’ll have people coming here to hang out rather than just to buy stuff. It will get the energy going,” said Kermeen.

The pro-cannabis lobby

However, pro-cannabis lobbyists think that the concerns of anti-cannabis lobbyists are scare-mongering.

Rielle Capler, a PhD student at UBC and cannabis expert who recently published the thesis “Are dispensaries indispensable?,” is one of many in the pro-cannabis camp who thinks legalization will have little effect on tobacco smoking.

In her opinionlegalization will have little effect on cigarette sales.

“I don’t think use is going to increase,” said Capler. “It’s not a concern that, all of a sudden, more people are going to use cannabis and then those people are going to decide they want to use tobacco too.”

Capler also emphasized that cannabis and tobacco are fundamentally different substances, due to their effects on health, and should not be categorized together.

“People are not smoking [cannabis] just to smoke,” she said. “When they smoke cannabis, they are smoking it for the effects. They are not smoking it just to have smoke inhaled [like cigarettes].”

Moreover, Capler believes legalization will be a good chance to educate young people about the risk of smoking cannabis and tobacco together.

“I think that the public-health education around tobacco smoke has been really great,” said Capler. “It’s an opportunity to reach out to those who are engaged in this practice of mixing the two substances and actually reduce the sales and use of tobacco.”