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Tobacco state will be site of e-cig research

North Carolina, famed for its lush tobacco fields, and for the board rooms of major cigarette companies, is becoming a major research hub for studies of vaping products. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been designated as the site of two government-sponsored research centers that will be providing much-needed data on the physical effects of inhaling vapor as well as on the psychological dimensions of e-cigarette marketing.

A look at the map tells you you're in tobacco country when you enter North Carolina: several of its major cities are names of cigarette brands, from the capital in Raleigh, nestled toward the east of the "Piedmont" area, to the mid-state metropolis of Winston-Salem (home of R. J. Reynolds, and neighbor to Lorillard home Greensboro). Of course a sizable chunk of the state's financial resources has traditionally depended on the fortunes of Big Tobacco. Near Raleigh lies Durham, historically the location of James B. Duke's American Tobacco Company, touted as the inventor of the mass produced cigarette. More recently, the south-western North Carolina metropolis of Charlotte has become the home of e-cigarette company Ballantyne Brands.

The FDA has designated 14 "Centers for Tobacco Regulatory Science" around the country, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) is the only institution slated to house two of them, at $20M each, spread over 5 years. With nearby Durham and Raleigh, Chapel Hill, home to the state's flagship university, forms "Research Triangle", noted as a nest of universities and scientific institutes. One of the new research centers, based in the UNC-CH Medical School and headed by Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology Robert Tarran, will study the effects of inhaling e-cigarette vapor on human lung tissue. The other, headed by Professor of Health Behavior Kurt Ribisi at the Gillings School of Public Health, will be studying the impact of media campaigns and package warnings on the public awareness of risk, especially with regard to novel tobacco products such as electronic cigarettes.

Meanwhile, Durham-based SciMetrika has been awarded a 5-year, $40M grant to study flavorings, their history in cigarette marketing and in public awareness, and the role of flavors in e-cig appeal, particularly, of course, to youth. "Flavoring is an important aspect of consumer products, and the FDA wants to understand what the marketing strategies are and how they might affect the buying habits of youth," says senior SciMetrika fellow Mike Samuhel, claiming that the institute plans to "stay above the fray" and simply provide data that the FDA may use in making informed decisions. The issue of the appeal of e-cig flavorings to young people is one of the most important areas needing research, since the unsupported claim that e-cig flavorings are a cornerstone of the attempt to "hook kids on nicotine" has been a key component in opposition to the product.

In addition to these three major projects, federally funded research on e-cigarettes will be going on in several projects at Research Triangle Institute International, located in Research Triangle Park, to the tune of $3M.

Many have noted that the deeming regulations released last week may be seen more as a "blueprint" than as a finished proposal, with many blanks that remain to be filled in. These projects will provide the information necessary to fill in those blanks and produce science-based regulation.

There seems little chance that the research will be tainted by industry influence. The scientific work coming out of the Research Triangle has long been noted for its international scope, transcending its roots in the local economy. Indeed, some see tension between the ideals of the Triangle – comprising UNC-CH, Durham's prestigious Duke University, Raleigh's NC State University, and the scores of institutes at Research Triangle Park and elsewhere in the area – and those of the more centrally located "Triad" – comprising Lorillard home base Greensboro, RJ Reynolds home base Winston-Salem, and nearby High Point.