BBC Used to Promote Smoking as being Genetic - not Inherited Behaviour
On the 22nd April 2013 Jeremy Vine, broadcasting on his morning BBC Radio 2 programme1, featured a promotion for e-cigarettes, where he had an e-cigarette in the
studio and described, how the electric light at the tip worked, presumably in glowing terms(!), and how
similar it was to a tobacco cigarette etc.
And a caller rang in, saying how great e-cigarettes are, and saying something like “it’s your genetic make-up
that determines whether you are a smoker or not – it’s not hereditary”.
Jeremy was clearly somewhat taken aback at this statement – and a short discussion ensued with the lady as to
whether smoking behaviour was ‘genetic’ or ‘hereditary’, and what these expressions might mean. In the time
available Jeremy Vine was unable clarify the ideas of smoking behaviour being either ‘genetic’, or ‘hereditary’ and
what the difference between the two, if any, might be.
This claim that smoking behaviour was genetic was also noted as being repeated by a reader comment on an
e-cigarette feature in the Daily Mail2:
"To the people who state "giving up is easy" or "people who don't quit lack willpower" seem to not
recognise is that a) nicotine dependence level is in part determined by genetics it would seem, it is
harder for some than for others b) there are people the tobacco control groups call "chippers" these
people mysteriously can quit without difficulty and they are NOT the majority and c) to quit you need
lots of motivation and the ability to bear the withdrawal symptoms which can last for weeks for some
Some people have real and medical reasons for not having these ingredients.
The people who say quitting is easy by definition were not heavily addicted, therefore how can
they speak to how majority of existing long-term smokers can or should quit?
I have been off smoking for over a year now due to e-cigarettes and they have been a
People who cut down or switch to harm reduction strategies like long-term NRT, smokeless tobacco
or e-cigs should be congratulated not shamed!"
Smoking behaviour is hereditary
So, what do people mean when discussing whether an activity like smoking is either ‘genetic’ – or ‘hereditary’ –
and why does it matter ?
Simply put something is 'hereditary' if it is inherited by a person from the immediately preceding, or
current, generation. So a parent might pass on to their children a prized family heirloom – that heirloom is
inherited – it’s a good example of something that might be ‘hereditary’. A parent might also pass on to their
children attitudes and behaviours, such that the child also holds those attitudes and behaviours. E.g. a child
might inherit an interest in playing sport or in going to watch their local football team play or in working
hard on their school homework, or maybe take up smoking because one or both parent(s) smoke.
In contrast something that is 'genetic' is passed on to a person by ALL preceding generations – our
genes are in some way a composite of all those people, our parents and all our ancestors, who have gone before
Thus smoking behaviour, say, is very much inherited behaviour and not genetic.
Some evidence for this is, for example:
A primate (gorilla, monkey, chimpanzee - there have been several instances around the world) in a
zoo that learnt to smoke from cigarettes that were tossed to it by smoker visitors3 – so the gorilla learnt from ‘the previous generation’ to smoke
cigarettes – this form of behaviour (smoking) was never ever in the gorilla’s genes - no other gorilla in any
gorilla colony was or ever had been, a smoker ! It was learnt behaviour, inherited by observing the behaviour
of visitors who threw the gorilla cigarettes to smoke.
And many smokers first become dependent upon nicotine inhalation as a result of copying their smoking parent(s),
and stealing, and smoking, their parent's cigarettes10 -
or by sharing the cigarettes that their smoking friends stole from their parents.
As another example, many people might well be aware of an ancestor who smoked – but they themselves are
non-smokers – so they didn’t inherit the behaviour genetically from their own ancestor(s). And over 25% of the UK
population are now former smokers.3 i.e. at one time in
their life they smoked, they then took the decision to stop smoking - and don't smoke any more. So over 15
million people in the UK alone have beaten their 'inherited dependency behaviour' and successfully stopped
In the United States, unsurprisingly (being bigger), there are even more people who have beaten their
'inherited dependency behaviour' - in 2002, an estimated 46.0 million adults were former smokers, representing
50.1% (95% CI = ±1.1) of adults who had ever smoked; 2002 was the first year that former smokers exceeded current
smokers in the U.S.
That's a lot of people that have already successfully stopped smoking. It's because smoking behaviour is not
genetic and out of the smoke'rs control - it's inherited.
And there was pretty much no tobacco smoking at all in England until tobacco was introduced into the
UK from America and then popularised by Sir Walter Raleigh !
Smoking related diseases are genetic
However, in contrast, the susceptibility to, say, a smoking related disease, such as cancer, is very much
genetic – a person's genes are very much influenced by one’s own genetic make-up which is in turn
influenced by the genetic make-up of one’s parents, and their parents and ancestors, and so on and so forth.
For example, in 2013, Angelina Jolie, had a double mastectomy5 because she had a faulty gene that is associated with breast cancer, and in many
families there is a family history of breast cancer from one generation to the next.
And some life long smokers live a long time before succumbing to a smoking related disease, and some life long
smokers don't live such a long time before succumbing to a smoking related disease - and some life long smokers
don't die from a smoking related disease at all.
So the susceptibility to a smoking related disease is genetic - and that is something that we have no control
over, unless maybe there is a family history and something like radical preemptive surgery can be of
Why does this matter ?
It’s because if smoking behaviour is not ‘genetic’ (and it most certainly isn’t), but something that is learnt
from parents and environment (like the gorilla) – then it is a behaviour that can be ‘unlearned’ – smoking is
definitely not a behaviour that a smoker has no control over because it is ‘embedded in their genes’.
And with the susceptibility to a disease such as cancer being ‘genetic’ there is one thing that most of
us cannot be sure of – our own personal genetic code and our own personal susceptibility to a smoking
related disease such as cancer - however epidemiological data and clinical studies, studying smoking related
diseases has identified smoking as being a major risk factor, and the likeliehood of contracting a smoking
related disease to be extremely high (nearly 1 in 2 lifelong smokers experiencing an early, preventable,
So the thing to do is to stop smoking as soon as possible - transferring to nicotine laden e-cigarettes as an
alternative to smoking is extremely unlikely to help and in all probability can only make things
Why is this genetic/hereditary distinction so important ?
It is particularly important because some smokers, those who believe that they are in some way ‘genetically
addicted’ to smoking behaviour will, as a consequence, NOT try very hard to stop smoking. And they will then fail
in their half hearted attempts to quit the habit, purely because they feel that it is something that is outside of
their own control and they are half expecting to fail anyway.
And, of course, every time they attempt to quit smoking, and fail, that failed quit attempt reinforces in their
mind their own personal belief, that they must be ‘genetically addicted’ to smoking!
And had Jeremy Vine had this knowledge available to him he might have been able to persuade his caller
(who in fact may well have been been recruited by the e-cigarette industry to make that call) that
smoking, tobacco or e-cigarettes, was her own choice – and nothing to do with her genetic make up. And that what
she was saying really did not make any sense.
And of course the BBC has given a significant amount of valuable air time, in using Jeremy Vine to
broadcast and promote e-cigarettes and in allowing the caller to assert to all the listeners that smoking is
genetic – a fallacy that some listeners would have been only too happy to seize upon as justification for not
quitting and instead continuing their habit of smoking/vaping – and further damage their health in the process.
The problem is of course that when ‘research’ is misreported, or misrepresented, such that smoking
behaviour is presented as being a ‘genetic addiction’, the effect of this is to reinforce a belief in the mind of
the user that they are genetically addicted to smoking. This makes it less likely that a smoker will try
to quit smoking - such that, when they do try to quit, they are more likely to fail because they are half expecting
to fail anyway. And then when they do fail it reinforces their belief that they must be 'genetically addicted' to
smoking, making it less likely that they will try to stop smoking again.
Of course, it would be very much advantageous to the nicotine industry for people to
be encouraged to believe that they are genetically addicted to smoking - it would mean then, for
example, that smoking dependency is then neither a 'fault' of the nicotine industry or a 'fault' of
the user, and users will put less effort into stopping and the nicotine industry will make more money...
And there is of course the possibility that the 'reader comment' in the Daily Mail, might
be from someone who has either been recruited by the e-cigarette industry to sing the praises of e-cigarettes.
Or maybe, as it appears, she really does believe that she is 'genetically addicted', and that belief makes it
difficult for her to quit smoking. Or maybe there is the possibility that in reality she enjoys smoking/vaping
and really just doesn't want to quit smoking at all - but is happy to pretend that she is trying to
As can be seen by the comment by the Daily Mail reader "I have been off smoking for over a year now due to
e-cigarettes and they have been a godsend" - what she clearly doesn't realise is that the smoke and tar that have
built up in her lungs over years of smoking are still there. And she doesn't realise that by vaping nicotine she is
continuing to bathe the tar that remains in her lungs with nicotine - which is proven to promote
cancer.7 So, by switching to vaping
nicotine using e-cigarettes she hasn't really changed her situation significantly at all with regard to
lung disease - but of course the nicotine industry is not going to mention that -
and this possibility certainly wasn't discussed on the Jeremy Vine programme.
So be very aware that the nicotine industry would love their users (smokers and vapers) to believe
that they are genetically addicted to smoking. But, rest assured - no one is genetically addicted to
smoking/vaping cigarettes, and many many people do, and have, quit successfully - when they finally put their
mind to it and finally take the decision to stop smoking like millions of otehr smokers have over the years.
And certainly the most successful way of quitting smoking is to just stop, 'cold
turkey'8 - any form of nicotine replacement therapy
or use of e-cigarettes merely changes the delivery mechanism, and maintains the nicotine dependency
cycle - prolonging the process of quitting and delaying the day when you finally become free of nicotine.
Update 20th July 2013
Interestingly, as an afterthought, it does seem like the tobacco industry itself has a far greater
understanding of the underlying psychology behind the power of suggestion and belief on quitting
smoking than the medical profession. At least, that seems to have been the case in
However there do seem to be strong indications in 2013 that certain members of the medical
establishment, by suggesting that smokers are addicted, and can only 'quit' smoking by using
their e-cigarettes, are beginning to catch up and exploit the psychology of positive suggestion
The psychology and the effect of the suggestion that smokers are addicted and that quitting smoking will be
difficult works in a similar way to the suggestions used by mothers worldwide that
help their children by having a positive attitude and using distraction techniques, or 'kissing the
pain better' to help the pain to go away.
In 1994 cigarette makers argued that smoking is no more addictive than caffeine and that lowering nicotine to
the levels critics wanted would effectively ban cigarettes.9
Certainly it is clear that the cigarette makers knew that if the medical profession suggested to a
smoker that it will be difficult to stop smoking, by suggesting that the smoker was addicted and needed help -
then for that smoker, sure enough, quitting would be difficult, and it would become a self fulfilling prophecy, and
the smoker would fail in their attempt and quickly return to smoking:-
"If Dr. Kessler wants people to try to quit smoking, he ought to tell them to try because they can
quit, and not characterize them as addicts doomed to fail if they try to quit."
Steven Parrish - Vice President of the Philip Morris tobacco company in 1994.9
1st published 18th July 2013, updated 20th July 2013
1. Jeremy Vine show - good publicity for e-cigarettes...
2. Daily Mail reader comment on smoking being genetic
3. Smoking Chimp Video - As the presenter says: “Monkey See – Monkey Do”
4. Former smokers now exceed current smokers
5. Angelina Jolie - double mastectomy
6. Not every smoker wants to quit smoking - some like smoking/vaping
7. Nicotine inhalation will promote cancer and accelerate lung damage
8. Most successful way of stopping smoking is non-nicotine cold turkey or psychotherapy - but not
encouraged by the NHS
9. Smokers who want to quit just need to believe that they can quit, and try - and then they'll
10. "If you are a parent who smokes, your teenage child has a three-fold increased risk of smoking." - Jonathan
Winickoff, associate professor in Harvard Medical School's Department of Pediatrics in Boston