Background: Despite popular beliefs that smoking affects the sensitivity and liking of sweet-tasting foods and beverages, few psychophysical studies have examined this phenomenon and none have taken into account the individual’s family history of alcoholism (FH+), a predictor of heightened sweet preferences.
Methods: A within- and between-subjects study was conducted to determine the effect of both cigarette smoking and an acute exposure to nicotine on sweet taste sensitivity and preferences in women. Two groups were studied on 2 days separated by 1 week: women who were current smokers (n = 27, 18 were FH+) and those who never smoked in their lifetime (n = 22, 9 were FH+). Current smokers smoked nicotine-containing cigarettes during 1 test session and nicotine-free cigarettes during the other. The procedures were identical during both test sessions for the group of never smokers, with the exception that they did not smoke. Two-alternative staircase methods and forced-choice tracking procedures were used to assess sucrose thresholds and preferences, respectively, during both test session. Standardized questionnaires were administered to assess food cravings as well as smoking and alcohol usage and dependence. The Family Interview for Genetic Studies was used to detect alcoholism according to the DSM III criteria for family members up to second-degree relatives.
Results: Acute exposure to nicotine did not affect sucrose detection thresholds or preferences, but smokers had significantly higher sucrose detection thresholds than never smokers. The greater the smoking dose in pack-years, the lower the sucrose sensitivity. Regardless of smoking status, women who were FH+ preferred significantly higher sucrose concentrations and craved sweets more often than women who were not.
Conclusions: Both smoking and having a family history of alcoholism had differential effects on sweet taste. Smoking was associated with decreased sweet taste sensitivity whereas having a family history of alcoholism was associated with heightened sweet preferences. These findings suggests that future research on the effects of smoking on food habits and cravings should take into account family history of alcoholism given its association with sweet liking and the increased likelihood to develop a tobacco disorder.