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Can we blame our genes for excessive smoking and drinking?

A short exploration of the genetic predisposition behind human behaviours

The advancing research on how tobacco, alcohol addictions, and other detrimental behaviors are consequences of complex interplays between genetic and environmental factors has gradually developed and gained credibility. A collaborative effort involving over 100 international scientists, including researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), embarked on a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to explore the heritable traits associated with tobacco and alcohol addiction. The study analyzed data from a sample size of 1.2 million biobanks, epidemiological research, and genetic testing companies, shedding light on the relationship between genetics and addiction behaviors.

Researchers discovered that phenotypes related to smoking, such as when individuals began smoking habits, are genetically correlated with various diseases. In contrast, increased genetic risk for alcohol consumption is linked to reduced risk of many diseases. Previous studies pinpointed 10 genes involved in the risk of tobacco and alcohol addiction. In addition, this study further contributed to genetic links by identifying more than 400 locations in the genomes with over 500 variants associated with critical functions involving dopamine regulation, glutamate transmission and acetylcholine activation in the brain. Another study involving 3.4 million people with diverse ancestries suggested that approximately 3,823 genetic variants may impact addiction behaviors, with specific variants associated with the age at which individuals start smoking and the number of cigarettes or alcoholic drinks consumed.

These studies could indicate a future where genetic screening for genes relevant to addiction behaviors is available, and this could be especially useful for those with relatives involved in certain addictions. Furthermore, it also provides perspective on whether certain genes can increase the likelihood of addiction to illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin or MDMA. However, increasing people’s awareness of whether they are at risk of developing addictions may be insufficient in deterring them from pursuing risky behaviors, which suggests that genetic screening for these genes would be beneficial as an optional screening assessment for individuals.

While the influence of environmental and social factors on tobacco and alcohol addictions has long been acknowledged and explored, these studies underscore the significant role genetics plays in determining an individual’s susceptibility to nicotine and alcohol dependence. The prospect of predicting a person’s risk of addiction can lead to early interventions. Furthermore, it prevents countless health-related fatalities associated with smoking and alcoholic beverages. This primary prevention provides a different aspect to risk factors for smoking and alcohol addiction while also reducing the burden of these highly prevalent public health concerns.

Written by Maya El Toukhy


  1. New Scientist (n.d.). Thousands of genetic variants may influence smoking and alcohol use. [online] New Scientist. Available at: [Accessed 23 Oct. 2023].

  2. Today’s Clinical Lab. (n.d.). Do Your Genes Predispose You to Smoking and Drinking? [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Oct. 2023].

  3. University of Minnesota. (2019). Hundreds of genes affecting tobacco and alcohol use discovered. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Oct. 2023].

  4. Schlaepfer, I., Hoft, N. and Ehringer, M. (2008). The Genetic Components of Alcohol and Nicotine Co-Addiction: From Genes to Behavior. Current Drug Abuse Reviewse, 1(2), pp.124– 134. doi:

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