The University Record, April 22, 1998

Some people are 'born to smoke'

By Dave Wilkins
Health System Public Relations

Only about one-third of the teenagers who experiment with tobacco go on to smoke regularly. What makes them different from kids who try a cigarette or two and decide smoking is not for them?

Although social factors such as peer pressure undoubtedly play a role, there is mounting evidence that some people are "destined" to become smokers because they are inherently more sensitive to the effects of nicotine--particularly the pleasurable effects--than people who are not tempted to smoke again.

In a new study, researchers from the Medical School asked female smokers, ex-smokers and non-smokers about the sensations they felt when they tried smoking the first time. The smokers--especially the heavy smokers--were much more likely to say they experienced pleasurable effects, such as a "buzz" or relaxation.

The research is detailed in a paper to be published in the April issue of the journal Addiction. It was conducted by Ovide Pomerleau and colleagues at the Nicotine Research Laboratory in the Behavioral Medicine Program.

These findings have a bearing on the debate over cigarette advertising and teenagers, Pomerleau says, because they suggest one in three kids who sample a cigarette will become lifetime tobacco customers--and vulnerable to its adverse health effects. For that reason, he says, it's critical to reduce the number of teens who smoke that "first" cigarette.

Previous studies have indicated that the propensity to smoke is transmitted genetically, even more so than alcoholism is. The U-M study goes a step further and offers clues about precisely what is being inherited--a tendency to find nicotine pleasurable--and perhaps where gene-hunters should start in their search for "smoking genes."

The study also suggests that someday it may be possible to identify a cluster of characteristics that go hand-in-hand with sensitivity to nicotine--or to develop a test for biological sensitivity. Once there is a simple way to identify children at high risk of becoming smokers, they can be targeted for special preventive efforts, Pomerleau says.

He and colleagues from the U-M, Washington University and SRI International are investigating the genetic basis of smoking as part of the country's first federally funded center for nicotine research.

The study to be published in Addiction also refutes the conventional parental wisdom that a child who gets sick after sneaking a cigarette will be deterred from subsequent smoking. Current smokers were just as likely as non-smokers to experience nausea or coughing when they smoked the first time, but it did not dissuade them from continuing to light up.