Federal regulators are looking for better evidence to make decisions about the sales and marketing of cigarettes and emerging tobacco products. The University of Pennsylvania — and 13 other research centers around the country — now have grant money to help.

 

The newly named Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science
Research have each claimed a focus area. In Philadelphia, investigators want to document the communication directed toward consumers.

Caryn Lerman, deputy director of Penn's Abramson Cancer Center, wants to know more about the ways people learn about new products such as electronic and low-nicotine cigarettes.

"This is all happening in a very complex messy, media environment with social media," said Lerman, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the Annenberg School of Communication. "So managing the message for the public becomes more and more challenging."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health awarded Penn a five-year grant for $20 million.

Regulators at all levels — local, state and federal — have gotten creative in their efforts to protect health and discourage tobacco use.

In 2010, Australia, for example, forced cigarette makers to switch from branded tobacco wrappers to plain packaging, Lerman said.

"To what extent does seeing the logos of your favorite brand cigarettes have an effect on your cravings to smoke?" Lerman said. "Could plain packaging make a difference to smoking behavior?"

A mountain of research shows that cigarettes harm health — but right now there's less evidence on how consumers respond to Facebook posts, YouTube videos and Twitter messages, Lerman said.

The Penn researchers say they're especially on the lookout for misinformation.

"We're going to be scraping those sites looking for those kinds of videos that tell young people how to smoke or what's cool about smoking," said Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Health Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Recent work from Romer's team was published in the August issue of Nicotine & Tobacco Research. Those findings helped shape a Philadelphia campaign urging Philadelphia parents to quit smoking at home.

The investigators surveyed about 400 homes in which both a smoker and a child younger than 13 lives. Respondents reported that smoking was permitted in about 52 percent of those homes.

Success with household smoking bans

"Some of these households may be smoking in a room away from where the kids are because they think that will help," Romer said. "What they don't realize is that the smoke can travel, it really doesn't really protect those kids."

Romer says household smoking bans work. The survey found that someone smoked about two cigarettes per day in homes with a ban — about 16 cigarettes a day in households with no restrictions.

The city of Philadelphia helped fund the study.

"They wanted to know: What can we tell people to will encourage them not to smoke indoors?" Romer said.

The survey also uncovered some of the barriers that keep smokers from protecting their children.

"If you are on the fifth floor of a large apartment building with no balcony, the options are not that great," Romer said.

Romer said policymakers who build public housing and design communities need to "think harder" about providing spaces for people to smoke so they can avoid exposing children to toxic fumes.