When it comes to cigarette smoking, mounting evidence has found that if you smoke and how much you smoke is determined, at least in part, by your genes. That means, the tendency to become addicted to smoking, to some degree, runs in families.
Scientists have revealed people with certain genetic variants in nicotine receptor genes, like CHRNA3, are more likely to develop a dependence on tobacco and to become heavy smokers.
The mechanism isn’t completely understood yet, but here’s what scientists think may be happening. When exposed to tobacco, nicotine binds to nicotine receptors triggering a response in the brain. This is how the body may feel the ‘pleasure buzz’ from a puff of a cigarette. Variants in the genes that make these receptors may impact how they function. So, depending on your genes, you may have a more positive first smoking experience. And, in general, smoking just ‘feels better’ to some people, making it more addictive.
However, it isn’t possible to become dependent on tobacco without trying it.
Whether you attempt a first puff or not, what researchers call ‘smoking initiation’, appears to be more dependent on environmental influences than genetic factors. For example, researchers have found that parents’ awareness of their child’s activities and peer group in the pre-teen/teen years strongly influences initial smoking experimentation. Peer pressure and adversity during childhood also appear to play a role.
But, why does uncovering this hereditary tendency to smoke, and smoke heavily, matter?
We know that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, and we know lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the US. The thought is, the more we understand about how and why individuals choose to smoke, the better chance we have to develop targeted and effective strategies to avoid it.
But there’s more.
Researchers have also found that it may be more difficult for individuals with these genetic variants to quit smoking and stick with it. Fortunately, they haven’t observed an impact on willingness or attempts to quit, but successfully quitting seems to be another story.
The good news; although these people have more trouble quitting, they also respond much better to smoking cessation (i.e.: quitting smoking) medications. Which means the future may hold more personalized and thus more successful stop smoking treatments. And, this is a step in an exciting and hopeful direction.