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  • Bruce Salinger

Addiction and Genetics: Do Your Genes Indicate a Predisposition To Smoking and Drinking Problems?

Most people understand and acknowledge that smoking and drinking are unhealthy, especially with chronic use. Each substance increases the risks of diseases and adverse health conditions. Despite known risks, some people choose to use the substances recreationally. Others move past choice to a psychological and physical need, culminating in a substance use disorder and addiction.


People have argued the prevalence of genetic makeup in addiction, speculating that people with a family history of addiction or substance abuse are more likely afflicted by the condition than others. In recent years, research substantiated those claims with a massive study identifying genetic variants related to alcohol and tobacco use. Still, even if genes influence susceptibility to addiction, do they predict future behavior?


Addiction Genes: Real or Fake?


When people hear phrases like "genetic link to addiction," it paints a funny image in their heads and may imply that there is such a thing as an addiction gene. No one has an addiction gene in their body; what they may have is an inherited level of dopamine that fuels poor impulse control.


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter often referred to as the body's feel-good hormone. Higher dopamine production levels can push some people toward addictive behaviors and may influence substance abuse by 40% to 60%.


However, genetic makeup does not dictate action or future behavior. A person with a family history who inherits overactive dopamine levels only has a predisposition to addiction or substance use disorder.


Addiction: Environmental Versus Genetic Factors


A genetic predisposition to addiction is not the only indicator of risks nor the most significant. Environmental factors often play more of a role than people give them credit for, opening the door to problematic behaviors and portraying them as normal or acceptable.

Several factors can contribute to addiction and substance abuse risks. Some of the most notable factors include:

  • Peer pressure

  • Access

  • Trauma or traumatic stress

While environmental factors play a role, some groups are more at risk than others. For example, people with mental health conditions, like bipolar, PTSD, or depression, may be more prone to substance use and abuse. Also, because of the elevated levels of stress and associated trauma, people who are victims of discrimination and violence are more likely to have substance use disorders.


Addiction: Destined, Chosen, or Influenced


A problem with using genetics to explain addiction is it wrongly implies that people may not have a choice. Yes, genetics can influence future behavior, but they do not dictate it. Choice and influence still play a tremendous role in a person's behavior, and to a certain extent, neglect and trauma motivate many decisions.


Addiction is a disease, and genetics can increase the risks of contracting it, but environmental factors and personal experiences also influence its development heavily. The important thing for people to remember is they maintain some level of choice regarding their health.


Smoking and alcohol are not healthy choices. In moderation, a person may enjoy the occasional drink or drag, but it is best to avoid the substances, especially if you have a genetic predisposition.


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