Smoking habit may be genetic

Some smokers say they just can’t quit; others claim they could stop anytime if they really wanted. Recent research at the School of Medicine may provide an explanation for the dichotomy.

A recently published study led by professor Joel Gelernter found evidence that specific regions of the human genome may cause a predisposition to nicotine addiction. While valuable in its own right, students said, the research is sure to reignite debate over how best to combat smoking and nicotine addiction — and whether to combat it at all.

Erin Napolitano, an employee at Owl Shop, takes a break to enjoy a smoke. A recent study conducted at the School of Medicine indicates that some people may have a genetic predisposition to nicotine addiction.
Christopher Young
Erin Napolitano, an employee at Owl Shop, takes a break to enjoy a smoke. A recent study conducted at the School of Medicine indicates that some people may have a genetic predisposition to nicotine addiction.

The study, which looked at Americans of European and African descent, discovered statistically significant links between nicotine dependence and regions of chromosomes 5 and 7, Gelernter said. Additional research will attempt to locate with greater specificity the genes that affect nicotine dependence, Gelernter said.

“We have linkage regions,” Gelernter said. “But now we want to go in and get the genes out — genes that increase the risk for nicotine addiction.”

Despite the sophisticated genetic techniques available to the researchers, they also relied on previous research to narrow their focus, said professor Michael Krauthammer, who co-authored the research paper. Because of the huge quantity of genes to sort through, it was necessary to narrow the list of possible genomic regions contributing to nicotine addiction to the most likely candidates first, he said.

Krauthammer analyzed existing papers from various fields on nicotine dependency, finding 14 regions that would be good prospects for further research.

“We map the results to gene studies, and we get something like a Venn diagram,” Krauthammer said.

Gelernter said the research could improve treatment of nicotine addiction by identifying particular biological pathways that cause addiction.

“Someday, people will be able to be identified for risk factors before they have had exposure to nicotine,” Gelernter said. “Then we could do primary prevention, which we can’t do now.”

While both smokers and anti-smoking advocates said they found the study interesting and important from a purely scientific perspective, many were skeptical that it would — or should — affect medical, social, or personal decisions regarding smoking.

Joe Aphinyanaphongs ’07, who said he smokes and has no desire to quit, said that while the research might affect people who have become addicted to cigarettes, it will not change his own habits.

“I can be away from cigarettes and be fine,” he said. “I won’t miss it.”

Aphinyanaphongs is a columnist for the News.

Chase Olivarius-McAllister ’09 said she couldn’t care less about the research, but she hoped it would not be used to help control nicotine addiction.

“Smoking is such a wonderful habit — so civilizing,” she said.

But many smokers do wish to quit, and targeted treatment along the lines suggested by Gelernter could significantly increase the number of smokers who successfully stop smoking, said Patrick Reynolds, founder of the Foundation for a Smokefree America and grandson of tobacco giant R. J. Reynolds. He said he doubted that more information would significantly help the problem because most smokers start as teenagers, an age group known for its risk-taking behaviors.

He said that since 90 percent of smokers begin before age 19 and 60 percent before age 14, informing teenagers that they have an increased risk would not likely make a difference in whether they began smoking. But since currently 80 percent of smokers who try nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) relapse within 12 months, there is much room for improved treatment for addicts, he said, many of whom might be relieved to know their failure stemmed from more than a lack of willpower.

Gelernter said his team has already begun publishing further studies that identify the specific genes responsible for the genetic predispositions.

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