Smoking, complacency and the genetic lottery

This week, findings from the Medical Research Council revealed why some smokers seems to be immune to, or at least highly unlikely to develop, lung disease. Looking at the DNA of over 50,000 people, they found that a minority of people have favourable mutations that improved the function of their lungs. This meant that some people were less likely to develop Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which can include diseases like bronchitis and emphysema, as reported by BBC News.

While this is good news for those individuals, there are three conclusions to draw from this story. First, if you’re a smoker, it’s better to have a genetic predisposition against developing lung disease. Second, there is still no guarantee that you won’t get lung disease if you have those genes. Third, smoking is still going to be bad for you regardless of your genetic make-up!

While this research could lead to better treatment for lung diseases like COPD in the long run, it’s vital for all men not to be complacent. Smoking is bad for you, full stop. Aside from COPD, smoking has been definitively established as a leading or contributing cause of cancers (not just lung cancer), heart disease, stroke – even macular degeneration, or in simpler terms, losing your eyesight, which is also strongly associated with a different set of genes. While anyone who smokes should be able to access advice and help to quit, it’s hard to think of another activity with less to recommend it for health.

The key point here is that while some men may be fortunate enough to have a genetic match-up that offers more protection against particular conditions, that doesn’t give us a pass on health overall. Men need to take care of their health in the round if they want to live long and well. It’s often stated that Winston Churchill smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish every day of his life up to the age of 90 (we’re paraphrasing, no offence to the big man himself!). But what’s often forgotten is that he suffered multiple strokes and debilitating bouts of depression amongst other maladies. This is not a model of health to inspire! Likewise, the more common anecdotal tale of ‘my mate’s grandfather smoked every day of his life and lived to 85’ often masks the fact that that (possibly entirely fictional) grandfather was wracked by a hacking cough every morning and night, couldn’t walk more than a few steps without wheezing, and was generally in a sorry state for much of the time. The best way men can avoid this kind of experience is to stay active, eat healthy, drink alcohol only in moderation, and, you guessed it, not smoke.

So let’s take heart in the fact that some people will be genetically lucky, and that these discoveries may help improve treatments for the rest of us. But let’s not pretend this gives anyone a free pass – your health is your life, and men need to take control of their health to lead full, happy and healthy lives.

If you are a smoker and would like help to quit, the NHS runs local Stop Smoking Services that can help.  Likewise, you can get information and support from dedicated charities like ASHQUIT and the British Lung Foundation.