Are we genetically destined to behave poorly, or can a well-designed policy and a nurturing environment prevail over our instincts?

New research by Pietro Biroli and Christian Zünd examines the interplay between pub licensing policies in the UK and genetic predisposition to drinking alcohol. The authors show that your genetic predisposition to drinking is related to the decision to live close to pubs and curbs the beneficial effects of stricter licensing policies, which reduce the amount of alcohol consumed. 

Alcohol has been related to more than 60 medical conditions, widening health inequalities, and accounting for a share of the global burden of disease comparable to those of tobacco or hypertension. This study shows how genetic predisposition to alcohol consumption contributes to these health inequalities in two ways: first by favouring selection into unfavourable environments; and secondly by decreasing susceptibility to more restrictive alcohol licensing policies. 

Using the coordinates of all pubs and the branches of all the major retailers in the UK, the researchers construct a fine-grained measure of local alcohol availability for each one of the approximately 500,000 participants in the UK Biobank. 

To measure genetic predisposition, they construct a weighted sum of all the genetic variants that have been reliably associated with alcohol consumption. Notice that this is not a deterministic measure of your faith encoded in your genes, but it is simply a number that reflects researchers’ best estimate of how likely you are to drink based on your DNA. 

Using these measures, the authors show two main patterns in the data. First, individuals with a high genetic propensity to drinking move to and live in neighbourhoods with a greater density of pubs and retailers selling alcohol. Similar forms of correlations between your genetic propensity and the environment where you live have recently been demonstrated to contribute to inequality in health, socio-economic status and education. 

Second, the study evaluates the effectiveness of an alcohol licensing policy. Since the Licensing Act of 2003, responsibility for licensing in the UK has been decentralised to 350 local licensing boards. This has led to considerable variation in the restrictiveness or permissiveness of policy, both geographically and over time.

Using data on local licensing activity over the last 10 years, the study finds that a more restrictive licensing policy leads to decreased alcohol intake on average, but individuals with a high genetic propensity to drinking are less responsive to this policy change. They also reduce their drinking if they live in a local authority with stricter alcohol licensing, but much less so than those with a low genetic predisposition. 

These results demonstrate how genetic information can shed light on the determinants and the dynamics of health inequalities, and how genetic endowments interact with individual choices and public health policy. The research shows that the effectiveness of a supply-focused licensing policy as a tool to mitigate alcohol abuse can clash with individual predispositions and might exacerbate genetic inequality, suggesting the need for a more targeted approach.




Pietro Biroli 

Tel: +39 338 52 22 092 

+41 79 512 46 90