You know smoking tobacco does a number on your oral health. But can the same be said of smoking pot? Possibly, warns a new study from Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. Data from nearly 2,000 Americans reveals that regular tokers — those who lit up at least once every month in the last year — were twice as likely to have signs of gum disease as infrequent or nonsmokers.
To calculate risk, the researchers measured both the number of pockets between the teeth and gums and the depth of those pockets, both early signs of periodontitis. By both assessments, regular pot smokers fared worse than very occasional smokers and abstainers. If left unchecked, periodontal disease can lead to deteriorating and receding gums, recurrent bleeding, and, in advanced cases, tooth loss.
Because this was an observational study, the data doesn’t prove that smoking marijuana causes periodontitis. But the fact that there was such a strong connection — and that the more frequent the marijuana use, the more severe the signs of gum disease — is concerning, says lead researcher Jaffer Shariff. His team even controlled whether or not these people smoked cigarettes, which are directly responsible for more than half of gum disease cases among smokers. Even with no tobacco use, the risks remained.
Shariff says it’s too early to know exactly how pot could harm the gums. “Marijuana may be affecting the immune system, the inflammation process, or bacterial flora in the mouth," he says. "Maybe by smoking, the bad bacteria increase in number compared to the good bacteria.”
However, he is fairly certain the smoke itself isn’t the primary problem. “Sure, smoke can have an effect on the gums because of the heat generated,” Shariff says. “But the damage comes not from the smoke itself, but from the chemicals within it. Depending on how marijuana is grown and what type, it usually has 430 to 460 different compounds in it — more than a cigarette.”
For now, Shariff’s main objective is to make us aware of the link between weed and gum issues. “When cigarette smoking became popular, people didn’t know all the bad side effects,” he says. “Then later on, when people found out the complications, it was too late. Now that marijuana is so popular, and legal in some states, let’s not be too late. Sure, there are good effects of it — helping with glaucoma and seizures — but like any medication, there are side effects, and we need to be aware of them.”