Sunday, 03 August 2008

Is drug abuse genetic?

Addiction is something that can take many forms. It can be addiction to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, shopping and sex. Many full time addiction counsellors have come to the conclusion that addiction - or rather the propensity to become an addict - is an inborn character trait. It is the addictive personality that is likely to become an addict.

Although these counsellors have many years of experience in the field, there is little empirical evidence to support the addictive personality theory. Somehow, the belief that certain substances and activities are addictive has been discarded in favour of the genetic view.

Drug addiction is a major problem throughout the world. The drug of choice for billions of people around the world is tobacco. Although there has been a decline in the number of smokers in the developed world, the developing world is still catching up and the numbers of smokers are still increasing. Most smokers begin as a teenager, though some start even earlier. Tobacco companies know that once the 'victim' has tried their product a few times they will become hooked and become a loyal customer for life.

In the past many people took up smoking in the belief that there was something glamorous about it, that it added something to one's persona. Successful people in all fields of life smoked. Today that view of smoking has been reversed. It is now more likely to be the rebel rather than the successful person that becomes a smoker.

Because of its legal status, tobacco is not normally included as part of the drug abuse lexicon. Heroin, Crack-cocaine, Cocaine, Mandrax, Amphetamines, Opium, Morphine are all drugs that have addictive properties. In the case of the opiates, the body produces a tolerance that must be satisfied to prevent severe withdrawal symptoms.

Perhaps the argument is not about the addictive nature of the drugs being used, but about the type of person that is likely to try these drugs. Again, there is little empirical evidence to support the genetic view. Rather, there are a whole range of complex social and familial issues that influence what a child is likely to do. Certainly there is a personality - or genetic - element.

In the sixties drug use in the music industry was almost universal. In a previous era, actors were particularly prone. During the sixties and seventies almost all students used some form of drugs. Many did not even see this as drug abuse, but as part of a consciousness expanding self exploration.

Certainly the children of smokers are more likely to become smokers than the children of non-smokers, but there are many examples where smokers' children do no indulge in any addictive behaviour. Addictive behaviour is generally learned, but awareness and education can successfully mitigate against this learned behaviour. Rather than genetic factors it is the broader social networks and groups that influence the decision to experiment with and ultimately abuse drugs.

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