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Using Mendelian randomisation to explore the gateway hypothesis: Possible causal effects of smoking initiation and alcohol consumption on substance use outcomes

By Zoe E Reed, Robyn E Wootton, Marcus R Munafo

Posted 13 Jan 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.01.12.21249649

Background and Aims: Initial use of drugs such as tobacco and alcohol may lead to subsequent more problematic drug use - the 'gateway' hypothesis. However, observed associations may be due to a shared underlying risk factor, such as trait impulsivity. We used bidirectional Mendelian Randomisation (MR) to test the gateway hypothesis. Design: Our main method was inverse-variance weighted (IVW) MR, with other methods included as sensitivity analyses (where consistent results across methods would raise confidence in our primary results). MR is a genetic instrumental variable approach used to support stronger causal inference in observational studies. Setting: European ancestry individuals. Participants: Genome-wide association summary data for smoking initiation, alcoholic drinks per week, cannabis use and dependence, cocaine and opioid dependence (N=1,749 to 1,232,091). Measurements: Genetic variants for exposure. Findings: We found evidence of causal effects from smoking initiation to increased drinks per week (IVW: {beta}=0.06; 95% CI=0.03 to 0.09; p=9.44x10-06), cannabis use (IVW: OR=1.34; 95% CI=1.24 to 1.44; p=1.95x10-14), and cannabis dependence (IVW: OR=1.68; 95% CI=1.12 to 2.51; p=0.01). We also found evidence of an effect of cannabis use on increased likelihood of smoking initiation (IVW: OR=1.39; 95% CI=1.08 to 1.80; p=0.01). We did not find evidence of an effect of drinks per week on other substance use outcomes, except for weak evidence of an effect on cannabis use. We found evidence of an effect of opioid dependence on increased drinks per week (IVW: {beta}=0.002; 95% CI=0.0005 to 0.003; p=8.61x10-03). Conclusions: Smoking initiation may lead to increased alcohol consumption, cannabis use and dependence. Cannabis use may also lead to smoking initiation, and opioid dependence to alcohol consumption. However, given tobacco and alcohol use typically begin before other drug use, these results may reflect a shared risk factor, or a bidirectional effect for cannabis use. Further research should explore potentially shared risk factors.

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