February 2nd, 2009
12:43 PM ET

Phelps faces risks from firing up

By Danielle Dellorto
CNN Medical Producer

“What was he thinking?” That seems to be the common reaction when fans hear the news that Olympic superstar Michael Phelps got caught smoking pot. What’s interesting is, as I dug deeper, I realized people weren’t too concerned that his behavior may harm his health, but more appalled that his getting caught could cost him millions of dollars in endorsement money.

This got me thinking that a lot people look at marijuana as having very limited impact on our health. One friend made his case to me with absolute certainty in his tone, “In the big scheme of things, smoking pot is not going to hurt me.” He added, “At least I don’t smoke cigarettes.”

But is that really true? Are cigarettes worse for your health than marijuana? An overwhelming amount of research says not so fast.

Smoking one marijuana cigarette sends the same amount of tar into the lungs as four tobacco cigarettes. Turns out pot contains about 400 chemicals and 50 percent more carcinogens than a tobacco cigarette. Carcinogens cause damage to the DNA in our cells, increasing your risk for lung infections, heart disease and even cancer.

Pot is becoming as addictive as tobacco too. What’s being sold today is not your parents’ generation of marijuana. A study released last summer compared pot being smoked today with what was smoked back before 1992 and concluded it is 175 percent more potent, resulting in more frequent use and increasing it's addictive properties.

The short-term health effects probably won’t surprise you: impaired judgment, forgetfulness, difficulty focusing. But the long-term effects are physical. Marijuana smoking causes asthma, chest colds, lung infections and increased heart rate. Experts believe marijuana causes more damage to the respiratory system than cigarettes because pot smokers hold the smoke in their lungs longer than a person inhaling tobacco.

People may not realize their chronic chest cold could be the result of smoking pot and quite frankly for some people it may not even matter. But for a professional athlete, a swimmer no less, who relies on the strength of his lungs to win gold medals — the health ramifications just don’t seem worth it.

So here are my questions for you: Why is it so common for people to believe smoking pot doesn’t impact your health? Were you surprised by what you read? And don’t forget to sound off on Phelps. I want to know what YOU think he was thinking!

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.