UC Merced receives multimillion-dollar grant for new policy center

The University of California, Merced, Social Science and Management Building houses the Health Sciences Research Institute and the new Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center.

University of California, Merced, has been awarded a $3.8 million grant to establish the Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center (NCPC).

The new center will survey residents in all eight counties of the San Joaquin Valley, in addition to Calaveras, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties to get a better understanding of public health and policy matters related to recreational tobacco and cannabis use in the area.

The NCPC is the first tobacco policy center to be funded by 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.

NCPC Director Anna Song, a health psychology professor and expert in adolescent smoking behavior, hopes the new policy center will be a leading resource for community members with questions related to tobacco and cannabis use in the valley.

“We’ve been working on this for 10 years now, and it’s been a massive group effort to find resources to be able to study what is going on, what people know about policy and what their attitudes are toward it,” Song said. “This will give us a much better strategy in terms of reducing tobacco-related diseases and understanding the intersection between cannabis and tobacco.”

Song added that the NCPC hopes to study how changes in recreational marijuana use have been influenced by recent legalization across the state.

Smoking tobacco is more prevalent in the San Joaquin Valley and foothills, as compared to the Bay Area, though statewide researchers have not had the resources to determine how residents view tobacco- and cannabis-control policies to explain these behaviors, according to Dr. Mariaelena Gonzalez, assistant professor of public health at UC Merced and leading researcher at the new facility.

“At the state level, the California Health Interview Survey (conducted by the University of Southern California Center for Health Policy Research) surveys around 25,000 people per year,” Gonzalez said. “When they get statistics for Calaveras County, they survey 200 to 300 people and only ask four to five tobacco-related questions. All of these studies are limited, and it’s not enough to make a determination of what’s going on in Calaveras or other regions.”

A former Calaveras County resident, Gonzalez graduated from Bret Harte High School and left her hometown of Avery to attend Santa Clara University, where she earned bachelors’ degrees in religious studies and mathematics. Soon thereafter, Gonzalez received a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School at Harvard University.

After receiving her doctorate in sociology from Stanford University, Gonzalez spent four years at the University of California, San Francisco, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education working as a postdoctoral fellow.

Some of her research interests include social epidemiology, tobacco control and health and human rights.

Gonzalez said she is especially excited for the opportunity to conduct research in the county in which she was raised.

Of particular interest to Gonzalez is how nonsmokers are affected by secondhand smoke. Surveys will determine whether people support bans on smoking in cars and homes, whether they have seen people violating these laws and whether people have been exposed to secondhand smoke in these settings, according to Gonzalez.

Gonzalez mentioned that foothill and mountain counties will require a unique approach to obtaining a diversified range of responses since communities are spread so far apart.

“It will take some time to figure out where the best places to reach people will be,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll most likely be surveying at health fairs, community meetings or county fairs.”

The NCPC will eventually publish and disseminate its findings to the various county public health departments involved in the study.

When asked whether there was any consideration for alcohol to be included in the research, given its prevalence and well-documented links to disease and death across the country, Song explained that research on alcohol-related issues does not fall within the parameters of the grant request, and would be limited to the context of alcohol’s use with tobacco or cannabis.

“Community members know how big a problem is; they see the effects of substance use firsthand,” Song added. “We, as a part of the community, hope to get a temperature of what related issues there might be, since a lot of substances are comorbid.”

Gonzalez also pointed out that because tobacco and marijuana are commonly used concurrently – both can be smoked or vaporized and have similar appeal with a variety of flavored products – it would be efficient to study the two substances together.

When asked whether questions about medical cannabis use would be included in the surveys, Gonzalez explained that obtaining that information would require participants to provide identification in the form of a medical card, which would be noncompliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which mandates that participants involved in public health research be kept anonymous.

The second stage of the research process would involve educating high school students and young adults on the findings, and training them to advocate to their local boards of supervisors.

“Young people can be passionate, and we can help them be more effective,” Gonzalez said.

Merced officials will also partner with Healthy House Merced (HHM) and the American Heart Association throughout the research and dissemination efforts.

Belle Vallador, HHM interpreter for the Filipino community, explained that HHM will engage in workshops with the American Heart Association to build marijuana advocacy in ethnically diverse youths.

“Since 6 percent of Merced’s population is Hmong, and more than 50 percent are Spanish speakers, we will be a great help in interpreting and translating information that the NCPC will be disseminating to the community,” Vallador said.

Data on the prevalence of marijuana and tobacco use in Central Valley communities could inform future research studying biological factors of tobacco-related diseases, according to Gonzalez. She hopes residents will participate in the surveys to help improve the health of their counties.

When asked what advice she would give Calaveras graduates as they embark on their post-high school careers, Gonzalez offered, “Look at what you are passionate about and what your strengths are in, and understand what you’re going to get into; to be a baker you need to understand the training required to become a baker. Be adventurous; it doesn’t hurt to try new things. I worked at a college radio station; I took ceramics and a theater class that taught us how to make costumes.”

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