Special from UC Merced
UC Merced has been awarded a $3.8 million grant to establish the UC Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center, positioning UC Merced and the San Joaquin Valley region as a leading center for the study of public health and policy matters related to tobacco and marijuana.
“Awarding of this center grant to UC Merced and its partners is a clear sign of the commitment, expertise and leadership of our faculty in addressing issues critical to both the Valley and the world,” Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Sam Traina said.
The NCPC is the first tobacco policy center to receive funding from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program , an initiative created through tobacco taxes and administered by the Research Grants Program Office at the University of California Office of the President. TRDRP fosters research that enhances our “understanding of tobacco use, prevention and cessation, the social, economic and policy-related aspects of tobacco use and tobacco-related diseases in California.”
NCPC Director Anna Song, a health psychology professor and expert in adolescent smoking behavior, said researchers know little about the demographic and socioeconomic factors associated with tobacco use in the Valley; the ways tobacco is obtained and consumed; the frequency of use and cessation; and why efforts aimed at prevention and control have been unsuccessful. Even less data exists on cannabis habits and how they may have changed after its recent legalization for recreational use.
“The Valley has been largely underserved and, as a result, limited health and health-policy data about the region exists,” Song said. “We know that Valley residents are much more likely to use tobacco and other drugs and suffer from tobacco- and drug-related illnesses than residents of other parts of the state. However, there’s very little information on the extent to which Valley residents are aware of and support existing tobacco- and cannabis-control policies.”
The center is designed to serve the Valley and includes researchers from the region. Professor Mariaelena Gonzalez, one of the center’s lead researchers, grew up in Calaveras County, and postdoctoral fellow Anna Epperson is a long-time Stanislaus County resident and one of the first recipients of a UC Merced Ph.D.
NCPC researchers will work in Valley communities with regional partners — including the American Heart Association (AHA), Healthy House Merced and local public health departments — to study issues such as smoking bans, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, vaping and marijuana use to produce empirical research that informs tobacco and cannabis policy and accurately reflects real issues facing Valley residents.
“The American Heart Association works for everyone to live longer, healthier lives,” said Lisa Jones Barker, AHA senior vice president for Health Strategies. “As part of this amazing project, we are here to listen to the community and find out what obstacles exist to either quitting tobacco and vaping products, or never picking them up in the first place. If, through this project, the community can share thoughts and ideas on how to prevent the harm caused by tobacco, it will mean more years of wellness for those throughout the Valley.”
Extra emphasis will be placed on understanding the factors that influence tobacco and cannabis habits among the Valley’s ethnically diverse teens and young adults. The center will also engage youth to serve as advocates for tobacco and cannabis control, communicating the center’s findings to peers and policymakers.
“I applaud UC Merced’s efforts to bring much-needed resources to our area and a deeper focus on how we can improve health outcomes in the Central Valley,” said California Assemblyman Adam Gray, who represents Merced and Stanislaus counties. “I have every confidence that the NCPC will forge key community partnerships to successfully engage participants in a way that reflects the unique and diverse needs of those who live in our region.”