One of President Barack Obama’s daughters, Malia Obama, was caught smoking what appeared to be a cigarette at the annual Harvard-Yale football game on Saturday. Barack Obama also smoked, though he quit his daily habit by the time he became president. But could he have passed the deady practice on to his daughter?
It's entirely possible. Several large studies have found becoming addicted to cigarettes, having more difficulty quitting and having a higher chance of getting lung cancer due to smoking may all have a genetic component. People have been studying the genetics of smoking since at least 1998, when scientists at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas announced they had found a potential link between a set of genes and the chance someone would become addicted to cigarettes.
Several other large studies have been published since then in major journals reinforcing the existence of a genetic link, including three published in Nature and Nature Genetics in 2008. Another study published in 2013 in JAMA Psychiatry analyzed the genes of over 1,000 people in New Zealand. They also found some were linked to the likelihood a person would become a daily or heavy smoker. They couldn’t find a genetic risk factor, however, for whether someone would ever begin to smoke—though there are some indications that genes might play a role in how teens and young adults respond to that first cigarette.
All of these links make sense, scientifically. Smoking is addictive because nicotine, a chemical found in tobacco, can trigger the brain’s reward pathway; that pathway is triggered when nicotine itself binds to receptors on brain cells. Those receptors (and everything else) are built by the body based on a person’s genetic code, which is primarily passed down from their parents.
Of course, a cigarette at a football game does not a chain smoker make. It's possible the cigarette Malia Obama smoked wasn't part of any addictive pattern. But if she does find herself hooked, there may be some good news in her genes, too.
Barack Obama famously quit smoking before becoming president, telling USA Today in 2013 that his family was his motivation. If his efforts to quit got a boost from his genes, then his family could benefit twice over. According to one 2012 study, variations in the genes that encode for the receptors to which nicotine binds may be linked to a person’s ability to quit smoking earlier in their life, with or without medication.
And, as Malia Obama has shown she knows, should she become addicted to cigarettes she'd do well to quit. Smoking is the top cause of preventable deaths in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 15 percent of adults smoked cigarettes in 2015. People who smoke are at an increased risk of having heart disease and strokes or dying.
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