Researchers study use of tobacco alternatives
UIC researchers are studying how young adults use hookahs, snus, electronic cigarettes and other new tobacco products.
“What’s intriguing and potentially challenging about the introduction of these new products is that they are perceived by many people as being safer products and alternatives to traditional, combustible tobacco,” says Robin Mermelstein, director of the Institute for Health Research and Policy and principal investigator for the $2.3 million National Cancer Institute-funded study.
Young adults are a vulnerable population, says Mermelstein, professor of psychology.
“Our study is going to look at what some of their motivations are for using these products, how they use them, where they use them,” she says. “Does it increase their overall tobacco dependence? Or, perhaps, does it help them reduce their tobacco dependence?”
Many young adults and older adults think such products are not tobacco and are not harmful, Mermelstein says. They may even believe — incorrectly — that the government has endorsed their safety.
Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigs, are battery-operated devices that produce a vaporized or aerosolized nicotine, known to be addictive, which is inhaled. The smokeless devices can be used in nonsmoking areas and are not regulated in most states. They do not carry FDA health warning labels.
The study is following about 230 young adults, ages 18 to 30, who regularly use non-cigarette forms of tobacco. The participants carry electronic diaries to record how and when they use tobacco each day.
The researchers will look at whether the subjects are using alternative tobacco products as well as cigarettes, as a bridge or a delaying tactic to quit smoking, as a style statement, or if they are using the products simultaneously with alcohol or drugs.
Young adults are a big market for tobacco companies, because they are willing to try new products in a variety of settings, Mermelstein says.
The researchers want to develop new ways to convey factual information about alternative tobacco products to young adults.
“We’re interested in seeing if there are effective and persuasive visual messages that we can convey through smartphone applications, to let people know what it is about these products that might make them harmful or helpful,” Mermelstein says.
Co-investigators are Don Hedeker, Kathi Diviak, Jason Leigh, Steve Jones, Robert Kenyon and Alicia Matthews of UIC, and Thomas Piasecki of the University of Missouri.