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UNC awarded $18 million grant from Food and Drug Administration for tobacco research

Kurt Ribisl, the principal investigator (PI) on the research that was given $18 million in funding by the FDA which will study the race, sexuality, age, and socioeconomics of tobacco product users.

Last month, selected from roughly 40 organizations, UNC was chosen as one of the seven recipients of a research grant to study tobacco regulation and marketing.

The University received $18,642,346 from the Food and Drug Administration to fund the five-year research project, which will study the race, sexuality, age and socioeconomic status of tobacco product users.

Researchers say disparities in tobacco use are evident, even among college students.

“I'm pretty certain that, at UNC, disparities are higher in the use of tobacco products among LGBT students,” primary investigator Dr. Kurt Ribisl said. “I can also see that currently, to young adults, e-cigarettes are the preferred product over cigarettes.”

The funding comes with the University's involvement in the third cohort of the Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science, among other accompanying schools, including Yale, Ohio State and the University of Michigan.

This TCORS cohort is a crucial part of the Tobacco Regulatory Science Program, an interagency partnership between the FDA and the National Institutes of Health. 

Ribisl said that, as a participant, UNC will take part in four research projects. It will also receive shared administrative and training resources to guide the success of the projects.

The first project, led by professors Dr. Adam Goldstein and Justin Byron, involves developing a communication campaign to reduce youth desire to use tobacco products. 

The leaders of the second project, professors Marissa Hall and Noel Brewer, will use the UNC Mini Mart to study if an innovative “quit smoking” campaign could make a ban on menthol cigarettes more effective, with a focus on racial disparities in smokers.

“Can we use this sort of pivotal moment of a menthol ban as an opportunity to help as many people as possible quit smoking altogether,” Hall said about the project.

The third project takes a different approach. A team led by professors Sarah Mills and Kristen Hassmiller Lich will use microsimulation models to study the health effects of flavored nicotine.

The fourth project's leads, professors Sarah Kowitt and Seth Noar, will test the efficiency of vaping prevention advertisements through a text messaging campaign. 

The co-leads of the projects all said they thought UNC received this opportunity because of its history and interdisciplinary nature. Ribisl said North Carolina has a rich history with tobacco and is also one of the leading states in tobacco control. 

In 2013, the University received a similar grant from TCORS, but Goldstein said that today, there are three to four times as many researchers at UNC studying tobacco. The increase in personnel has significantly propelled tobacco research toward new findings, including that flavored cigarettes produced more positive expectancies among college students than non-flavored cigarettes.

Because the research involves various expertise in marketing, health and statistical skills, the professors, researchers and graduate students involved with this project come from a variety of programs. Participants are from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the Gillings School of Public Health, the School of Medicine and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“You only get a chance five or 10 times in your real career to make a huge difference in the work that you're doing, and I think this is one of the greatest chances that I've had,” Goldstein, who was also one of the original tobacco researchers at UNC, said. “And in part, it's because of the colleagues that I'm able to work with. These are smart, driven, collaborative people.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the number of applicants to the TCORS grant. This number has since been corrected. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.

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