Association of genetic liability to smoking initiation with e-cigarette use in young adults: A cohort study

Jasmine N Khouja*, Robyn E Wootton, Amy E Taylor, George Davey Smith, Marcus R Munafo

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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Tobacco smoking and e-cigarette use are strongly associated, but it is currently unclear whether this association is causal, or due to shared factors that influence both behaviours such as a shared genetic liability. The aim of this study was to investigate whether polygenic risk scores (PRS) for smoking initiation are associated with ever use of e-cigarettes.
Methods and Findings
Smoking initiation PRS were calculated for young adults (N =7,859, mean age = 24 years, 51% male) of European ancestry in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a prospective birth cohort study initiated in 1991. PRS were calculated using the GWAS & Sequencing Consortium of Alcohol and Nicotine use (GSCAN) summary statistics. Five thresholds ranging from 5×10-8 to 0.5 were used to calculate five PRS for each individual. Using logistic regression, we investigated the association between smoking initiation PRS and the main outcome, self-reported e-cigarette use (n = 2,894, measured between 2016 and 2017), as well as self-reported smoking initiation and eight negative control outcomes (socioeconomic position at birth, externalising disorders in childhood and risk-taking in young adulthood). A total of 878 young adults (30%) had ever used e-cigarettes at 24 years, and 150 (5%) were regular e-cigarette users at 24 years. We observed positive associations of similar magnitude between smoking initiation PRS (created using the p < 5×10-8 threshold) and both smoking initiation (OR = 1.29, 95% CI 1.19 to 1.39, p < 0.001) and ever e-cigarette use (OR = 1.24, 95% CI 1.14 to 1.34, p < 0.001) by the age of 24 years, indicating that a genetic predisposition to smoking initiation is associated with an increased risk of using e-cigarettes. At lower p-value thresholds, we observed an association between smoking initiation PRS and ever e-cigarette use among never smokers. We also found evidence of associations between smoking initiation PRS and some negative control outcomes, particularly when less stringent p-value thresholds were used to create the PRS, but also at the strictest threshold (e.g., gambling, number of sexual partners, conduct disorder at 7 years, and parental socioeconomic position at birth). However, this study is limited by the relatively small sample size and potential for collider bias.
Our results indicate that there may be a shared genetic aetiology between smoking and e-cigarette use, and also with socioeconomic position, externalising disorders in childhood, and risky behaviour more generally. This indicates that there may be a common genetic vulnerability to both smoking and e-cigarette use, which may reflect a broad risk-taking phenotype.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1003555
Pages (from-to)e1003555
Number of pages16
JournalPLoS Medicine
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 18 Mar 2021


  • E-cigarettes
  • Smoking
  • Polygenic risk score (PRS)

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