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Massey researchers awarded grant to study the impact of e-cigarette advertising on youth

Andrew Barnes, Ph.D.
Andrew Barnes, Ph.D.

VCU Massey Cancer Center researchers Andrew Barnes, Ph.D., and Caroline Cobb, Ph.D., were recently awarded a $450,000 grant from the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth (VFHY) to study the impact of electronic cigarette advertising on youth ages 13-18. The results of the study will help inform policy makers as they determine whether the marketing of e-cigarettes should be regulated in the same fashion as their combustible cigarette counterparts.

“Unlike regular cigarettes, e-cigarettes can be and are marketed toward youth, and nearly one in six high school seniors report using an e-cigarette in the past month,” said Barnes, who is a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey and an assistant professor in the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research in the VCU School of Medicine. “We will study a sample of youth in Virginia to understand how advertising messages influence attitudes about, intentions to use and potential to abuse e-cigarettes in order to assist public health and policy efforts to mitigate the harms arising from alternative and traditional tobacco product use.”

E-cigarettes are currently unregulated at the federal level, and in Virginia their sale is only prohibited to minors and on school property. Unlike cigarettes, which have strict restrictions on advertising to youth, e-cigarettes can be marketed to youth through television, radio, magazines and other media channels, which likely increase their appeal to this vulnerable population. Last year, a national study found 17 percent of 12th graders had used an e-cigarette in the past month, while 14 percent smoked a cigarette. This trend continued among 10th graders, of which 16 percent had used an e-cigarette and 7 percent smoked a cigarette. Even 9 percent of 8th graders had used an e-cigarette in the last month. As an assistant professor in the VCU Department of Psychology, Cobb has a distinct interest in how these various messages influence e-cigarette use among young people and in the potential for e-cigarettes to lead to combustible cigarette use.

“Youth are known to be more susceptible to advertising,” said Cobb. “Given the evolving nature of the e-cigarette market, it is important to understand the thematic content found in advertising messages for e-cigarettes as well as their differential impact on e-cigarette attitudes and intentions to use.”

During the first phase of the study, the researchers will work with colleague Amanda Richardson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to perform a content analysis of current e-cigarette advertisements in order to determine the most dominant messaging themes. In the second phase, the researchers plan to partner with Consumer and Community Connections, LLC, the YMCA of Greater Richmond and The Faces of Hope to survey 1,400 youth. Participants will be randomly assigned to view a specific messaging theme, and e-cigarette receptivity as well as intentions to use the product will be assessed after exposure to the ad. The researchers will also measure e-cigarette abuse liability, which is defined as the likelihood of participants to abuse e-cigarettes, and they will compare outcomes between current cigarette smokers and “susceptible” non-smokers, which are those who do not smoke cigarettes but report that they are likely to try smoking soon.

“To determine the likelihood of e-cigarette abuse, we ask participants how many puffs of an e-cigarette they would take at various prices,” said Barnes.

Caroline Cobb
Caroline Cobb, Ph.D.

The Virginia General Assembly established VFHY in 1999 to promote healthy living habits and reduce and prevent youth tobacco use and childhood obesity statewide. The study led by Barnes and Cobb was one of three VCU projects to receive VFHY funding. Key to obtaining the grant were initial results from an ongoing Massey Pilot Project by Barnes, Cobb and Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., who is a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey, professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products. Massey Pilot Projects allow collaborative research teams the ability to gather preliminary data needed for the investigators to prepare a successful grant application for a larger study. Their project examines abuse liability in relation to potential regulatory policies the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could impose if e-cigarettes are deemed a tobacco product. These policies include restrictions on e-cigarette liquid flavors (e.g., menthol) and the availability of modified risk tobacco product (MRTP) messaging. Tobacco products authorized as MRTPs are those distributed to reduce harm or risk of tobacco-related diseases and may be marketed with messages describing those claims.

Barnes’ and Cobb’s research is part of a broader focus at VCU. VCU is one of 14 Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science appointed by the National Institutes of Health and the FDA to study so-called MRTPs and other novel tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes, to help inform United States tobacco regulatory policy.

“In order to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, they need to be deemed as tobacco products. The FDA has been gathering input from researchers and other organizations for the past several years, and we expect them to make a decision in that regard soon,” said Cobb. “Here at VCU, we are in a unique position because we are attacking the issue from both angles. Our research seeks to establish evidence to support the best set of regulations to deliver the greatest reduction of harm from tobacco, while our colleagues in the VCU Center for the Study of Tobacco Products are using a comprehensive model to evaluate the potential harm of various e-cigarette products.”

These ongoing studies will contribute to a comprehensive suite of recommendations designed to inform future state and federal legislation regulating the marketing and sale of e-cigarettes and their impact on traditional and alternative tobacco product abuse.

Written by: John Wallace

Posted on: September 24, 2015

Category: Center news & funding