Genetics and Addiction: A Complicated Relationship


Addiction and substance abuse are serious problems for millions of Americans. The National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that the abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs costs more than $600 billion every year in health care, lost productivity, and crime-related expenses. Despite better information and increased awareness of the negative health effects of addictive substances, millions of Americans continue to suffer from addiction to alcohol or drugs – or both. Medical researchers study the physical effects of addiction to many substances, but they also study the physical causes and influences. It is clear from this research that a person’s genetic code has a significant influence on their addictive behaviors or potential to become addicted.

A Complicated Story

While genetics are increasingly understood as an important component of addiction, that doesn’t mean an individual’s genetic code dooms them to a life of addiction and substance abuse. The reality is much more complicated, and other factors, especially environmental ones, play a role in creating addiction.

There is no single gene that causes addiction. Many different genes influence a person’s chances of becoming addicted, including genes that encourage the formation of addictions and also genes that discourage them. Moreover, there is not a single gene that influences all types of addiction. The physical effects of different substances are too varied for any one gene to relate to all of them. The interaction of genetics and addiction is complicated, and it varies greatly from one individual to another.

Family and Environment

It’s important to understand that genetic factors can influence one’s predisposition toward addiction in order to make more informed choices about using potentially addictive substances. In addition to genetics, it is important to understand environmental factors, including family, friends, media, culture, and the availability of different substances. These non-genetic factors can have just as strong of an influence on a person’s likelihood of becoming addictive.

It’s an overstatement to say that addiction runs in families, but families can influence addictive tendencies in multiple ways. Because genetic code is passed down from parents to children, some genes that influence addiction might show up in multiple generations of a family. A child’s behavior, however, is based not only on their inherited genes, but also on what they see their parents and peers do. If parents abuse alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs, children may follow in their footsteps, regardless of any genetic influences.

Personal Choice

Finally, the most important thing to know about genetics and addiction is that genetics will never trump personal choice. Addictive behaviors are built on what a person chooses to do, and the best way to avoid dealing with any kind of substance abuse is to avoid building the addiction to it in the first place. A genetic predisposition toward addiction to tobacco, for example, means absolutely nothing if you never light up a cigarette. A person who doesn’t use alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs cannot form an addiction to any of them.

People with a strong family history of addiction need to be especially aware of their risks, not only because of genetic factors but also because of environmental ones. Taking proactive steps can help a person avoid the trap of addiction, even if several members of their family have fallen into it. Avoiding the use of illegal drugs and tobacco and maintaining abstinence is very important in the initial stages of recovery. Talking to a counselor or psychologist can be a big help as these professionals are trained to help individuals understand the emotional and behavioral
concerns related to addiction. Obtaining a sponsor and attending meetings specifically designed to help people in recovery is often critical to success. Simply having a person to talk to who is outside a family situation can also be beneficial. They may be able to refer you to other resources to support you in your choice to stay clean. Any concerns about taking prescription drugs or painkillers should be discussed with a health care provider. Finally, building a network of friends who live fun and healthy lives without drugs can support and encourage anyone who is determined not to follow in the addictive footsteps of their family.

Genetics definitely influence a person’s chances of becoming addicted to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, but they are not the deciding factor. Being aware of genetic risks can help you avoid problems with addiction but making smart choices regarding the use of addictive substances is even more important.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.