DNA Predicts Smoking Behavior (to a Point)

By Sarah Beller 05/23/12

One specific gene variant is linked to smoking on average one extra cigarette daily among a large African American study group.

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One specific gene marker can help predict how much a person will smoke, a new meta-analysis finds. Researchers from 50 medical institutions nationwide analyzed the genetic material of over 32,000 smokers and non-smokers of African ancestry, to see if certain genes were linked to smoking activity. (Past research linking genetics and smoking behavior has focused primarily on populations of European descent, leaving a need for more research among other ethnic groups.) Data gathered included the age at which people began smoking, how many cigarettes they smoked per day, and how successful they were at quitting. The study found that a variant in a nicotine receptor gene is linked to smoking about one extra cigarette per day. This genetic marker is on the same gene—though in a different spot—as that implicated in smoking behavior among people of European ancestry. African Americans, on average, start smoking later and smoke fewer cigarettes per day, yet are less likely to successfully quit than people of European descent, and face a higher risk of smoking-related lung cancer than most other US populations. Sean David—MD, DPhil, a clinical associate professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the lead researcher of the study—hopes these findings will pave the way for improved treatments to help smokers quit, and for expanded preventative measures against lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases. He says the finding that this gene plays a role in “different ancestral groups” adds to the evidence of its significance, and “suggests it as a target for drug discovery and development.”

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.