Skip to content

Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center Gets $3.9 Million Extension

May 14, 2024
AI illustration of rural dangers of tobacco use
The grant extends the Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center's work for four years. (AI-generated illustration)

UC Merced’s Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center has earned multiyear funding to continue its mission to embolden community partners and share policy-influencing data in the long battle against the pervasive use of tobacco and other inhalants in underserved San Joaquin Valley and foothill populations.

NCPC will receive a $3.9 million grant from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, a UC-based entity that funds inquiry into social, behavioral and biomedical sciences that aims to achieve health equity for all Californians. NCPC’s renewal goes into effect July 1 and extends the center’s work for four years. NCPC has established subawards with four partners to enhance the grant’s impact: California Health Collaborative, GreenInfo Network, Stanford University and UC Irvine.

This grant is part of the revenue generated by Proposition 56, also known as the California Healthcare, Research and Prevention Tobacco Act of 2016. This initiative is aimed at reducing smoking rates and tobacco-related illnesses while generating revenue for research. Also, there is a focus on addressing health inequity that disproportionately affects underserved populations.

NCPC is part of UC Merced’s Health Sciences Research Institute. The center’s director, Arturo Durazo, is a community health psychologist and HSRI academic scientist.

Tobacco is a significant health concern in rural areas of the San Joaquin Valley. The prevalence of cigarette smoking among rural adults in the United States was reported at 28.9%, notably higher than the general adult population's 11.5% in 2021 . Smokeless tobacco also is used more extensively than in urban communities.

In addition, a full third of underage decoys used by authorities to test retailers were able to purchase tobacco products in the Valley’s seven counties in 2022, according to California government data. Only the state’s northern foothill counties had a higher rate.

Tobacco products, especially among young users, have proved to be slippery adversaries, said Irene Yen, a professor of public health and principal investigator for NCPC.

“We thought we had taken care of cigarettes among young people,” she said. “Then there was an explosion of e-cigarettes and vaping. So the whole area is, sadly, a new challenge.”

The Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program is under the UC Office of the President, but securing funds to continue NCPC’s work was no slam dunk, Durazo said. The grant application was competitive, with experts from outside California reviewing the proposals.

“Securing this funding was no easy feat," Durazo said, comparing the rigor to what the National Institutes of Health demands for its funding decisions.

We plan to engage with collaborators and partners who can benefit from the data.

Arturo Durazo

The center has been at the forefront of examining the impacts of tobacco and cannabis use and engaging the community through surveys and workshops to gather data that can inform existing and new policies. This involves collaborations with county health departments and community-based organizations.

In the months ahead, NCPC will create a dashboard of Valley-based data designed to influence how policymakers, agencies, community-based organizations and public health professionals share and acquire information related to tobacco, nicotine and cannabis use. Dashboard partner GreenInfo Network has a track record of successful projects that focus on reducing and eliminating the harmful impacts of these products. The collaboration will leverage GreenInfo’s expertise in several areas:

  • Reducing marketing aimed at young people, with a goal of eliminating sales to minors.
  • Assessing the enforcement of policies that restrict sales, ensuring retailers comply with regulations.
  • Analyzing the disproportionate burden of tobacco, nicotine and cannabis on underserved and exploited communities, then advocating for equitable public health
  • Supporting the development of effective, scientifically backed strategies that help people quit.

The trick is to convince nonprofit community-based organizations to use the same data available to county health agencies even as staff and funds fluctuate.

“We want to demonstrate to the CBOs that we are not an isolated institution,” Durazo said. “We plan to engage with collaborators and partners who can benefit from the data. We’ve just started to break bread to make these trusting relationships.”

NCPC also will continue its core training program to develop citizen scientists from young adult undergraduates at UC Merced and California state universities at Fresno and Stanislaus County. The volunteers get hands-on experience in scientific research methodologies, data collection and environmental awareness.

In the center’s next phase, demonstration projects and proofs of concept will be with county offices of education and leaders of the Tobacco-Use Prevention Education programs. NCPC will involve high school students to help bring awareness of tobacco use and the third-hand environmental hazards caused by tobacco product waste.

NCPC will be part of an effort at UC Merced and other California research universities to mentor up-and-coming leaders in tobacco control research and advocacy.

“In short, we want to mentor our successors,” Durazo said. There also are research papers in the works that analyze responses to interviews about barriers to tobacco-control policies in the Valley and local foothills, along with a statement on cannabis control that targets emerging policies that promote the cannabis market as “healthy” or “functional.”

Professor Anna Song, NCPC’s founding director and principal investigator, will continue to work with the center as chief advisor. Song, a health psychologist, is now associate vice provost for academic personnel.