Teen Smoking (Photo credit: M Hooper)
Why is it that some teens who try cigarettes get addicted rather quickly while others do not? Well, based on a new study with over 40 years of data, genes may play a role in this phenomenon.
Researchers examined data from previous studies to develop a genetic risk score for heavy smokers. Following this, they screened the genes of over 1,000 New Zealanders from birth to age 38 to see whether those with high risk scores were addicted to cigarettes more rapidly as teens– and whether they had a more difficult time quitting smoking as adults.
According to results of the study in JAMA Psychiatry published online March 27th, those teens with a “high-risk” genetic profile who tried smoking were 24 percent more likely to become daily smokers by the age of 15 and 43 percent more likely to smoke a pack a day by the time they were 18.
These high-risk teens were also 27 percent more likely to become addicted to nicotine and 22 percent more likely to fail quit-smoking attempts as adults, when compared to teens with lower scores. Subjects in the study with high-risk gene scores also smoked almost 7,300 more cigarettes than the average smoker by age 38.
It turns out that an individual’s genetic risk profile did not predict whether they would try cigarettes. Nearly 70 percent of study participants had tried smoking. Those who did try cigarettes and had a high-risk gene score were more likely to become heavy smokers. The risk score was a greater predictor of becoming a smoker than family history according to the study.
Based on this study, it appears that certain genes can enhance the potential for developing an addiction to cigarettes. A number of participants in this study had tried smoking cigarettes at the age of 15, but the majority did not go on to become heavy smokers.
Overall, there was no relationship between these “high risk” genes and risk of becoming a heavy smoker when people began smoking as adults as opposed to during their teen years. A so-called “vulnerable” period for susceptibility for developing an addiction to smoking appears to be in the teen years.
Thus, it seems that genetic risks during adolescence may be a determining factor in whether teen smokers become adult smokers, suggesting the possibility to intervene in this process.
While anti-smoking campaigns which focus on teens may be useful, an important aim is to determine the ways in which these specific genes influence progression to begin smoking, and to further evaluate whether medications currently on the market which reduce cigarette cravings have any influence on these high risk genes. Developing newer medications which target these genes may potentially hold promise as well.
The concept that there is a “window” of time where health care providers can potentially intervene and prevent a teen smoker from developing into a lifelong heavy adult smoker has important implications from a public health standpoint.
The long held belief that adults who are unable to quit smoking is ultimately related to duration of smoking may potentially be replaced by such research showing that there are specific genetic factors which could influence teen smokers to become heavy smokers throughout their lives.