Washington University partners in five-year $11.6 million NIH grant to study retail tobacco policies across U.S.

Tobacco use causes nearly a half a million premature deaths each year from cancer, cardiovascular disease and pulmonary illnesses. Most tobacco is purchased from brick-and-mortar retailers where the tobacco industry spends $1 million every hour on advertising and marketing.

The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave states and localities more authority to regulate the sales and distribution of tobacco products in their communities. The rapid growth and spread of policies and interventions in the tobacco retail setting in the past nine years calls for systematic research to evaluate the efforts.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, along with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Stanford University, are recipients of a five-year $11.6 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) multi-institutional grant, Advancing Science & Practice in the Retail Environment (ASPiRE).

The project’s goal is to build a strong scientific evidence base for effective policies in the retail environment to help reduce tobacco use, tobacco-related disparities, and the public health burden of tobacco, including cancer.

Three innovative and complementary research projects will examine the role of the tobacco retail environment in promoting tobacco use and causing tobacco-related illnesses. Researchers will study how tobacco retailer density contributes to cigarette smoking and tobacco-related illnesses, evaluate the impact of local retail interventions on tobacco use and availability, and develop computational models to learn how changes in the built and consumer environment could lead to improved public health.

A Community Advisory Board, whose members include tobacco control leaders from 30 large U.S. cities, and organizations such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, will give input and guidance on what is most needed in their communities.


The principal investigators are Douglas A. Luke, professor of public health at the Brown School and director of the Center for Public Health Systems Science at Washington University in St. Louis; Kurt M. Ribisl, chair and professor in the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and program leader of Cancer Prevention and Control at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center; and Lisa Henriksen, senior research scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif., and a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute.

The ASPiRE group continues its “team science” approach, building on a strong, multidisciplinary six-year collaboration that began in 2012 with funding from the National Cancer Institute’s State & Community Tobacco Control Initiative.

Results from the three unique research projects — Tobacco Town, Big City Tobacco Control and Density and Disease — will combine to advance the retail tobacco control evidence base.

Led by Luke and Ross A. Hammond, associate professor of public health at the Brown School, the Tobacco Town project will use agent-based modeling to study innovative policies in the retail setting and their impact in different types of communities, especially those with low-income and minority populations.

Data collected from the Big City Tobacco Control project will help inform model development for Tobacco Town by adding current and realistic tobacco use patterns and user behaviors.

“The Tobacco Town study is exciting because the computational models will be used to better understand how retail policies actually operate to improve community health,” Luke said. “In turn, communities will learn how to tailor these policies to meet their particular tobacco control needs.”

In the Density and Disease project, researchers at UNC will map 275,000 tobacco retailers across the U.S. from 2000 to 2016 and explore the relationship between the density of these retailers and tobacco-related illness, like cancer.

The Big City Tobacco Control project led by Stanford seeks to understand how the tobacco retail environment in a city may impede efforts at quitting smoking. This study will further evaluate the benefits of local policies to regulate and limit retail availability of tobacco. Stanford researchers will survey a panel of 2,400 adult smokers five times over 30 months and will examine changes over time.

In addition to three distinct synergistic research projects, the ASPiRE Center has three shared resource cores. The Dissemination & Implementation core, co-led by Luke and Ross C. Brownson, the Bernard Becker Professor and director of the Prevention Research Center at the Brown School and the School of Medicine at Washington University, will promote integration across the three projects and enhance the efficient translation and reach of findings.

The administrative core is housed at UNC and the data and statistics core is housed at Stanford.

This research is supported by the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P01CA225597. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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