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Massey researchers receive $1M from VFHY to study youth tobacco use and inform state policy

VCU Massey Cancer Center researchers received three grants totaling more than $1 million from the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth (VFHY) to study the factors that increase the risk of youth tobacco use as a means to inform more effective prevention strategies and policies.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of cancer in Virginia and the U.S., and it is linked to the development of a wide range of disease types including lung, larynx, mouth, esophagus, throat, bladder, kidney, liver, stomach, pancreas, colorectal and cervical cancer, as well as acute myeloid leukemia, as indicated by the National Cancer Institute.

More than 80 percent of adult smokers started smoking before age 18, in many cases as early as 13 or 14, with nicotine addiction often developing in a matter of a few weeks, according to the VFHY.

“Massey Cancer Center is committed to discovering novel ways of eliminating cancer in our community,” said Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director for cancer prevention and control at Massey and one of the researchers who received a VFHY grant.

The research funded by these grants will focus on identifying the social, cultural and institutional factors that may be driving youth to begin smoking.

“By better understanding these multi-level factors, the data will inform local solutions and policy approaches that might be leveraged to prevent youth from using tobacco. Reducing initiation of tobacco use during adolescence has the potential to improve the lives of our residents and ultimately reduce the cancer burden in our state,” Fuemmeler said.

The VFHY empowers Virginia’s youth to make healthy choices by reducing and preventing youth tobacco use, substance use and childhood obesity.

“We are pleased to have several projects being conducted at VCU that focus on relevant issues such as e-cigarette and cigar use by youth in Virginia. This research will help inform future efforts to reduce and prevent youth tobacco use, not just here in the commonwealth, but across the nation,” said Marty Kilgore, the executive director of VFHY.

Fuemmeler, the Gordon D. Ginder, M.D., Chair in Cancer Research at Massey and a professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the VCU School of Medicine, together with Elizabeth Do, Ph.D., M.P.H., also from the VCU Department of Health Behavior and Policy, received $450,000 from the VFHY to study the geographic impact of tobacco retail and vape shop outlets on the rate of tobacco use among Virginia’s youth and how federal and state policies can be enacted to potentially reduce certain risks. They are both principal investigators (PIs) on this research.

Previous research has shown a positive correlation between tobacco retail outlet location and increased rates of cigarette smoking among adolescents living in proximity to the retail outlets. This study will aim to learn more about potential links between vape shop density and cigarette use, e-cigarette use or dual use among the surrounding youth population.

Furthermore, Fuemmeler and Do hope this research may directly influence legislators on regulations related to where tobacco retail and vape shop outlets should be positioned to most effectively decrease the risk of youth tobacco initiation.

Another grant from the VFHY provides $450,000 to support the first-ever study using systems science-based interactive simulation models to guide policy development, implementation and evaluation for the prevention and control of tobacco use among Virginia’s youth. Systems science is the study of how simple and complex systems impact nature, society and human decision-making. The project is led by PI Hong Xue, Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU Department of Health Behavior and Policy, along with co-investigators and Massey Cancer Prevention and Control research members Andrew Barnes, Ph.D., associate professor in the VCU Department of Health Behavior and Policy, and J. Randy Koch, Ph.D., research associate professor in the VCU Psychology Department.

The study will create systems-based simulation models to learn more about the potential benefits of three regulatory approaches to minimize the burden of tobacco products:

  • Increasing the minimum age of legal access to e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes
  • Imposing new taxes on e-cigarettes and increasing the taxes on conventional tobacco products
  • Creating a mandatory distance for e-cigarette retail outlets from K-12 schools

“We are thrilled to receive this funding from the VFHY. We strongly believe our project will generate significant evidence to support efforts to advance legislative issues in the commonwealth of Virginia and at the federal level to prevent and reduce e-cigarette use as a means to improve the health of young people,” Xue said.

Additionally, Barnes and Caroline Cobb, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey and assistant professor of psychology at VCU, are co-PIs on a $150,000 study that will examine cigar use among Virginia youth living in lower socioeconomic status communities.

Nearly 8 percent of middle school and high school students are reported to use cigars, and cigars are the most commonly used tobacco product among African-American high school students. Flavored cigars are deliberately marketed toward youth and African Americans with heavier instances of advertising and distribution in lower-income and African-American communities.

“Despite the clear role that cigars, particularly flavored cigars, may play in promoting youth tobacco use and amplifying health disparities, they have not been a primary focus of federal or state tobacco control and prevention efforts,” said Barnes.

This mixed methods study will recruit cigar-smoking and non-tobacco-using youth residing in lower socioeconomic status communities to participate in surveys and focus groups that will serve to enlighten investigators about the attitudes, perceptions and knowledge of cigars as well as the social and behavioral factors that influence cigar use. An advisory board will be involved to translate the research findings to the community and state legislators.

“A well-designed and concise study timeline paired with a team experienced in community-engaged research will ensure the availability of results that can make an impact within local communities and Virginia at large to improve outcomes related to youth tobacco use,” Barnes said.

All three grants went into effect in July and will fund research over the course of three years.

Other collaborators on these projects include the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, Georgetown University, Georgia State University and the Tobacco Free Alliance of Virginia.

Written by: Blake Belden

Posted on: July 27, 2018