Willie Nelson Says He Quit Smoking Weed After 'Abusing' His Lungs—But is it Really That Bad?

Willie Nelson is notorious for his love of marijuana, but the country legend just revealed that he’s stopped smoking weed for his health.

“I have abused my lungs quite a bit in the past, so breathing is a little more difficult these days and I have to be careful," Nelson told San Antonio TV station KSAT. “I don’t smoke anymore. I take better care of myself today." (Just to clarify, though, per Vice, Nelson has not quit cannabis altogether.)

Nelson said he’d “mistreated” his body since he was young. “I started smoking cedar bark, went from that to cigarettes to whatever,” he said. “And that almost killed me.” Nelson, 86, said he smoked his first joint in 1954 and has loved weed ever since.

But in August, he was forced to quit six shows on his tour due to “breathing issues.” Now, he’s trying to keep his lungs healthy. "Your lungs are the biggest muscle you have got. So when you're out there working, you are working out," he said.

Nelson has been a marijuana advocate for years, and he told Rolling Stone in May that the drug “saved” his life. "I wouldn’t have lived 85 years if I’d have kept drinking and smoking like I was when I was 30, 40 years old,” he said. “I think that weed kept me from wanting to kill people. And probably kept a lot of people from wanting to kill me, too—out there drunk, running around.”

It’s kind of shocking that such an outspoken weed fan would quit for health reasons—and it raises a huge question: Is smoking marijuana bad for your lungs?

How does marijuana impact your lungs, exactly?

The American Lung Association (ALA) “cautions” people against smoking weed “because of the risks it poses to the lungs," but that's pretty vague. Why? Because the health risks of marijuana still aren't entirely clear. "“There hasn’t been nearly as much research on marijuana as on tobacco as a cause of cancer," largely because of its past illegality, Otis W. Brawley, MD, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, previously told Health

Still, experts are aware that marijuana smoke contains a lot of the same toxins, irritants, and carcinogens as cigarette smoke, Raymond Casciari, MD, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., tells Health. “People think smoking marijuana is completely safe, but it’s not,” he says. (For reference, the American Cancer Society, says tobacco smoke contains at least 70 cancer-causing chemicals. About 30 of those 70 chemicals are also present in marijuana.)

Another possible danger associated with marijuana smoke: People tend to inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer when they smoke pot vs. cigarettes, leading to more exposure, per the ALA. 

And as far as the small amounts of research on marijuana's effects on the lungs, well, that's not great either. Research has shown that it can cause chronic bronchitis and that marijuana smoke can injure the cell linings of the large airways, per the ALA. Some research even shows that marijuana smoke can have similar effects on the lungs as cigarette smoke. "Studies that obtained lung biopsies from marijuana users revealed changes in the airway lining very similar to those observed in tobacco users: destruction of normal lung cells, ultimately replaced by mucus producing cells," Alejandro Aragaki, MD, Interventional Pulmonology Service Director at the University of Cincinnati, tells Health.

Regularly smoking weed can also ultimately lead to conditions like emphysema and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Dr. Casciari says.

Overall, while more research needs to be done on marijuana's effects on the lungs, it's just not a great idea to smoke weed on the regular. "I usually remind my patients that the 'airways like to see only air,'" says Dr. Aragaki. Dr. Casciari agrees: “Your lungs are very delicate and there’s not much to protect them. If you inhale a lot of toxins, it’s not going to go well,” he says.

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