The research has found that six to twelve percent of high school children have experimented with cannabis, otherwise also known as dagga. Professor Andre van Zyl, from the School of Dentistry at the University of Pretoria, says young people do not see anything wrong with using dagga nor are they aware of the health risk it poses. He says young people should be aware of the serious cancers that smoking dagga can create, namely oral and oro-pharyngeal cancer, also referred to as mouth and throat cancers. The cancer develops in the mouth area and is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Professor van Zyl, says if one smokes dagga there is a fourfold chance that one can get HPV-positive oro-pharyngeal cancer or throat cancer.
‘You will get the cancer because the cannabis will modify the immune system. And, it modifies the immune system in the throat area where you are breathing the cannabis in. This is the same area where the HPV virus will target, that is your tonsil and throat area. So, cannabis will cause the immune system to change and make it easier for HPV to attach and once it attaches, it is easier for it to become an infection. Then, it will lead to the cancer. That is why cannabis is such a big danger’, Professor van Zyl explains.
He says research shows that the HPV virus is spreading fast amongst young people because when they smoke dagga, they are also likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour. But he adds that statistics do not reflect the reality of dagga usage among young people as most of these cases go unreported. He makes an example of the Western Cape province.
‘The percentage of users were mostly coloured in the Western Cape, followed by white, third Asian and fourth, black. There is a fairly big difference between the white and coloured population versus your Asian and black population. Nobody knows for sure whether this is a true reflection because asking school children whether they are smoking marijuana… they can say anything and no one is going to subject themselves to tests, and that is the only real way to find out. Most children will say no, even if they are using it. So, we assume there is a huge under-reporting of this problem in our schools’, explains Professor van Zyl.
The problem doesn’t end there for these youngsters. According to Professor van Zyl, hubbly bubbly is also fast becoming a concern as more and more young people are starting to use it. Much like dagga, the hubbly bubbly can also cause mouth and throat cancer. The hubbly bubbly is more dangerous because it is smoked in larger quantities for a longer period of time.
‘The studies that we believe are correct are those that have gone to the hubbly bubbly that have examined the smoke and analysed what toxins are coming through… the same as in smoking. But, added to that, you have heavy metals coming through, which are carcinogenic and you have very high carbon monoxide levels coming through, which is also extremely toxic’.
‘We know that if you smoke the hubbly bubbly for 45 minutes a session it will increase your nicotine level to 250 percent in your blood, which means you’re getting those toxins in.
If you smoke it for about an hour or so, it will equate to 100 cigarettes worth of smoke. So, this clearly tells us it is harmful and will cause disease’, Professor van Zyl, explains.
Researchers predict that oral and oro-pharyngeal cancers will become the deadliest cancers after cervical cancer within the next 10 years. Professor van Zyl says in most cases people go for medical help when the cancer is already far into its development. He advises the public to visit their dentists regularly because the earlier the diagnosis is made the sooner can treatment begin to prevent severe illness and, possibly, death.
‘We have horrific examples of how late this cancer is diagnosed in this country because of the people coming from poor rural areas having no access to health care. They go to the local medical person who might give them a medication. But there is no medication for cancer. You need to be operated on; you need to receive high level radiation and chemotherapy. People should be aware they need to visit the dentist, even if they think they are at no risk’, says Professor van Zyl.
He advises that if you have a sore in your mouth for longer than two weeks, you should go and see a dentist rather than wait.