From left, Center for Public Health faculty include Mance Buttram, Page Dobbs and Alex Russell.
Three faculty members in the Center for Public Health and Technology have received nearly $2 million in prestigious National Institutes of Health grants that will help people with addiction issues.
The center, part of the College of Education and Health Professions, is a new hub for interdisciplinary research focusing on public health, communication, health literacy, and emerging media and digital technologies. Faculty are leaders and experienced collaborators who bring the power of health, big data, community partnerships and operational resources to bear on center-affiliated research.
Page Dobbs, interim director of the center, received an $800,126 Tobacco Regulatory Science K01 award from the National Cancer Institute to explore social media discussions about policy loopholes, enforcement challenges and industry interferences with tobacco control policies.
"The tobacco industry has a long history of deceiving policymakers by lobbying for tobacco control policies that are difficult to enforce or include loopholes," Dobbs said. "While information about these tactics was more difficult to obtain in the past, social media platforms such as Twitter, Reddit and Tiktok now provide transparent data about tobacco policy-related discussions for anyone to find."
Dobbs will explore social media discussions about tobacco control policies to understand how people avoid enforcement through policy loopholes, the challenges people experience when attempting to enforce these laws and how tobacco industries are trying to interfere with the enactment and enforcement of emerging tobacco laws. "I believe this information is meaningful to policymakers and to the FDA, the agency that oversees the enforcement of all tobacco products," she said.
Dobbs said although smoking rates have declined over the past half of a century, the tobacco industry has recently recycled many deceptive tactics to promote novel tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes, to youth and young adults. As a result, e-cigarette use among this young audience has increased over the past decade.
"In light of health consequences, such as the E-cigarette and Vaping Related Lung Injury (EVALI) first seen in 2019, the U.S. Congress and FDA acted quickly to enact legislation that raised the minimum legal sales age of tobacco products and restricted the sale of flavored pod-based e-cigarettes, respectively," she said. "Further, the FDA continues to call upon research to help inform the future of tobacco control policies that will reduce tobacco initiation and use, particularly among young, vulnerable populations.
Dobbs said the K01 award, entitled "Loopholes, Enforcement Challenges, and Tobacco Industry Interference with Tobacco Control Policies," will allow her to examine conversations about emerging tobacco control policies on social media. Examining the social networks that connect conversations between e-cigarette users, local vape stores and corporate tobacco companies will help her identify policy loopholes, enforcement challenges and industry interference via timestamped data. "This research can provide timely findings that will help inform FDA regulatory responses to emerging tobacco control policies," she said.
Dobbs' research will offer the FDA prompt, action-oriented recommendations about these policies.
Alex Russell, associate director of technology for the center, received a $735,000 grant to conduct a study that seeks to characterize alcohol use disorder and recovery-related exposures on Twitter to define prominent barriers to and facilitators of recovery, as well to identify targets for later intervention.
The K01, an esteemed research career development award, is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health.
"It's an honor to get this grant and largely a credit to the amazing mentors that have been placed in my life," Russell said. "This is a huge opportunity to receive additional hands-on training and to begin conducting research in line with NIAAA's emphases on the identifying and developing strategies to reduce personal and organizational barriers that prevent people with alcohol use disorders from seeking and receiving appropriate care, as well as developing innovative behavioral strategies to promote drinking-related behavior change."
Funded in September 2022, the study, titled "Characterizing alcohol use disorder recovery-related exposures on social media: Content, cluster, and network analysis," will be ongoing until 2027.
Over 3 million American young adults (18-25 years) met the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder last year. "Though there are effective treatment options for the disorder, there remains a large treatment gap because many young adults are hesitant to seek out formal treatment," Russell said. "It is imperative to explore novel and innovative ways to engage young adults with recovery support resources. One such means through which to enhance AUD treatment and recovery outcomes among young adults is by leveraging social media platforms to understand and address practical and attitudinal barriers to engaging with services."
Russell said prior research has established that social media use and engagement influence health behaviors, including alcohol use. However, social media platforms can also encourage healthy behaviors, such as abstinence from or reductions in one's drinking, he said. "My research seeks to understand how we can utilize social media platforms to encourage individuals with alcohol use disorder to engage with evidence-based alcohol treatment services and, in turn, achieve successful recovery from their alcohol-related problems," Russell said.
Mance Buttram, associate director of research for the center, received a $436,653 R21 award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to be the first to examine how gabapentin, an anti-convulsant medication, can be non-medically used in combination with prescription and illicit opioids.
"Limited data show that gabapentin is used by individuals with opioid use disorder to potentiate the euphoric effects of opioids, but at the same time, data also show that gabapentin is used to self-treat symptoms of opioid use disorder and physical pain experienced by people who use drugs," he said. "This study will use novel qualitative methods, including ethnographic decision modeling, and conduct surveys among people who use drugs in collaboration with treatment centers for substance use disorder in seven states."
Findings from this study, entitled "An Examination of Concomitant Non-Medical Use of Gabapentin and Opioids," will help prescribers and substance use disorder treatment providers understand how gabapentin is used in "real-world" environments.
"By examining the phenomenon, data from this study will contribute to public health knowledge of an understudied aspect of the opioid crisis, inform treatment practices for opioid use disorder, aid in the development of prevention and interventions strategies, as well as inform public policy initiatives," Buttram said.
About the Center for Public Health and Technology: As a multidisciplinary research center, the Center for Public Health and Technology invites collaboration with faculty across departments and colleges. Faculty focus on cutting-edge research, training and mentoring at all levels, and strong community partnerships. Center research incorporates a broad range of health and social issues and cultivates mixed methods, including descriptive, experimental, and interventional approaches. Broadly, the center's work aims to add to the understanding of how technologies (online, digital, social, wearable, among others) promote positive health behaviors and reduce disease burden, as well as examine the challenges associated with technology, including the propagation of misinformation and promotion of harmful health behaviors.