Cancer Institute awards MUSC Hollings $15 million to lead studies on tobacco policy, e-cigs

Thursday, June 2, 2016

side view of man smoking an e cigarette apparatus

Part of the $15 million study, which will be led by MUSC Hollings Cancer Center over the next five years, will look into the impact of government policy on vaporized nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes.          

Do government policies geared toward reducing smoking tobacco really work? If so, will those policies drive more people to use vaporized nicotine products, such as “e-cigs?” And is that necessarily a good thing from a public health standpoint?

Those are $15 million questions.

That’s how much the National Cancer Institute is awarding the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center to lead five interrelated studies at 10 academic institutions in four countries — the United States, Canada, Australia and England — over the next five years.

“The timing of this project is opportune since policies regulating vaporized nicotine products and conventional tobacco products are evolving in different countries, including the recently enacted regulations adopted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and data is needed to help guide effective policy development,” said Dr. Michael Cummings, professor in the MUSC Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and co-leader of the project.

Cummings said the 800-page grant, which was two years in the making, builds on research he and peers across the globe have undertaken. He added that $15 million, when compared to the billions in health care costs due to tobacco use, is “peanuts.”

On Thursday, the cancer center is announcing the grant award for the studies that build upon the longstanding International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project.

That comprehensive study uses a common set of measures to evaluate the behavioral impacts of national-level tobacco-control polices implemented as part of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Cummings said the proposed research utilizes both experimental and observational methods to explore the impact of policies on tobacco use behaviors in the four countries, which offer contrasting approaches in regulating tobacco and nicotine products.

“Canada and Australia have fairly restrictive regulations about the sale of e-cigarettes, while the U.S. and England are less restrictive, although evolving new regulations are likely to come into play in the next several years,” Cummings said.

“We predict that policies such as higher taxes, product warnings, plain packaging that makes the use of cigarettes less convenient and attractive will increase interest and use of alternative forms of nicotine such as e-cigarettes, while the opposite effect will occur if policies make vaporized nicotine products less convenient and accessible.”

Other institutions included in the research consortium include the University of South Carolina; Virginia Tech; Georgetown University; Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.; The State University of New York; University of Illinois at Chicago; Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.; the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada; The Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, Australia; and Kings College London in England.

Dr. Anthony J. Alberg, interim director for the Hollings Cancer Center and co-investigator on the grant, said there is a “hotly contested debate” in the medical and public health communities about whether vaporized nicotine product will be a net positive on public health.

“With so many new nicotine products being introduced into the marketplace, we are in new and uncharted terrain, and in desperate need of data to characterize the strengths and weaknesses of different policy options,” said Alberg. “The data generated from this project will help guide decision-makers and ultimately governments as to the most prudent course of action under this complex set of circumstances.”

Cummings said the first surveys for some of the studies will go out later this month and that new evidence related to the work will be produced in the fall.

“The grant was reviewed last summer so we had a good idea that the project would likely be funded,” said Cummings. “The research plans have been in the works for several years, so we are now anxious to get moving, especially given the FDA’s new deeming authority over electronic cigarettes and other tobacco products and policy changes happening in other parts of the world, such as plain packaging for cigarettes in England.”

David Quick Email @davidquick