July 7, 2014

Cornell obtains $3M grant to study tobacco warnings

Five Cornell faculty members will receive a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (part of the National Institutes of Health) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to examine how anti-smoking messages can be effective among youth, low-income and low-education groups.

The FDA is the agency responsible for tobacco product warning labels, which must comply with recent federal court constitutional rulings on graphic warning labels.

The faculty team is led by principal investigators Sahara Byrne, associate professor of communication, and Jeff Niederdeppe, associate professor of communication. Rosemary Avery, professor and chair of policy analysis and management; Michael Dorf, professor of law and an expert on the First Amendment; and Alan Mathios, the Rebecca and James Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology, are co-investigators on the project.

“Our aim is to assist the FDA as they revisit the design of the graphic warning labels,” said Byrne. “If the labels don't pass through the legal scrutiny, they won't ever be seen on U.S. cigarette packages and advertisements, and we will never see the public health benefits. We want to identify the most effective labels that will pass constitutional muster so that smokers will consider quitting and youth won't start.”

More than 400,000 preventable deaths annually result from tobacco use in the United States each year. The majority of new smokers are under the legal age to purchase cigarettes, say the researchers. In fact, youth, low-income and low-education groups are particularly susceptible to tobacco company marketing.

The Cornell team will test theoretically derived variations of FDA-proposed tobacco warning messages on health risk beliefs, emotional reactions and behavioral intentions of hard-to-reach groups with high smoking rates by analyzing size, colors used, messages and language. The researchers will test different versions of labels in a mobile lab that visits locations where at-risk populations reside.

“I am hopeful that our exciting multidisciplinary Cornell team spanning three colleges – Agriculture and Life Sciences, Human Ecology and the Law School – will help guide the FDA in having both effective warning labels on cigarettes and labels that are consistent with the constitutional laws that govern commercial speech,” said Mathios, who previously served as an economist for the Federal Trade Commission, where he researched FDA regulatory policies on consumer behavior.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says tobacco use is the leading cause of premature and preventable death in the United States, responsible for 443,000 deaths each year. For the U.S. economy, tobacco use costs nearly $289 billion annually in medical expenses, which includes about $133 billion in direct medical care and about $156 billion in lost productivity.