Importance  Genome-wide hypothesis-free discovery methods have identified loci that are associated with heavy smoking in adulthood. Research is needed to understand developmental processes that link newly discovered genetic risks with adult heavy smoking.
Objective  To test how genetic risks discovered in genome-wide association studies of adult smoking influence the developmental progression of smoking behavior from initiation through conversion to daily smoking, progression to heavy smoking, nicotine dependence, and struggles with cessation.
Design  A 38-year, prospective, longitudinal study of a representative birth cohort.
Setting  The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study of New Zealand.
Participants  The study included 1037 male and female participants.
Exposure  We assessed genetic risk with a multilocus genetic risk score. The genetic risk score was composed of single-nucleotide polymorphisms identified in 3 meta-analyses of genome-wide association studies of smoking quantity phenotypes.
Main Outcomes and Measures  Smoking initiation, conversion to daily smoking, progression to heavy smoking, nicotine dependence (Fagerström Test of Nicotine Dependence), and cessation difficulties were evaluated at 8 assessments spanning the ages of 11 to 38 years.
Results  Genetic risk score was unrelated to smoking initiation. However, individuals at higher genetic risk were more likely to convert to daily smoking as teenagers, progressed more rapidly from smoking initiation to heavy smoking, persisted longer in smoking heavily, developed nicotine dependence more frequently, were more reliant on smoking to cope with stress, and were more likely to fail in their cessation attempts. Further analysis revealed that 2 adolescent developmental phenotypes—early conversion to daily smoking and rapid progression to heavy smoking—mediated associations between the genetic risk score and mature phenotypes of persistent heavy smoking, nicotine dependence, and cessation failure. The genetic risk score predicted smoking risk over and above family history.
Conclusions and Relevance  Initiatives that disrupt the developmental progression of smoking behavior among adolescents may mitigate genetic risks for developing adult smoking problems. Future genetic research may maximize discovery potential by focusing on smoking behavior soon after smoking initiation and by studying young smokers.