UC Merced

New center at UC Merced will be the place to learn about cigarette and pot smoking

UC Merced has been awarded a $3.8 million grant to establish a center devoted to the study of nicotine and marijuana public health and regulatory policies in the San Joaquin Valley.

“We know so very little about what people think about smoking policies and about marijuana policies because there is just little data in the Valley,” said Anna Song, director of the newly created UC Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center.

There is little known about the demographic and social factors associated with tobacco use in the Valley, Song said. And even less is understood about marijuana habits and how they may have changed since California approved recreational use in 2016.

The center is the first to receive funding from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, an initiative created through state tobacco taxes and administered by the Research Grants Program Office at the University of California Office of the President.

Under the grant, the center at UC Merced will survey people about nicotine and marijuana consumption in the eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley and the foothill counties of Calaveras, Tuolumne and Mariposa.

Tobacco use is more prevalent in the San Joaquin Valley than many regions in the state. The prevalence of smoking by high school students in 2016 was 15.4 percent in the region that includes Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced Tulare and Kern counties. By contrast, the prevalence in the Los Angeles region was 10.7 percent.

But there’s little more than hunches to explain smoking habits in the Valley. “There’s not a lot of information on people’s behavior and use of products,” said Mariaelena Gonzalez, a UC Merced assistant professor of public health and one of the researchers at the center. “Are they using tobacco and marijuana together, vaping marijuana, choosing e-cigarettes … or is there a large population of smokeless users?”

Gonzalez, a native of Calaveras County, has her suspicions about Valley cigarette smokers: “I think many in the San Joaquin Valley smoke conventional cigarettes where other places are vaping (inhaling and exhaling the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette),” she said. But she knows she could be wrong. “We need some baseline data before we can say anything about what should be done.”

Information about pot smoking is even spottier, but many of the issues are the same as for smoking tobacco, Gonzalez said. For example, edible marijuana products may appeal to youth as flavored tobacco does. “We’re really concerned that maybe young adults are starting just like many of them start with flavored e-cigarettes,” she said. “Maybe they’re just starting with a cannabis gummy.”

The survey will include questions about public policies for smoking and marijuana, such as: Is there support for prohibiting vaping of marijuana in apartment buildings or in cars? Are people willing to ban flavored cigarettes and flavored products in general?

“If people are going to change tobacco control policies, it needs to be something the community is going to support,” Gonzalez said.

The center will work with community groups to conduct interviews, focus groups and surveys, Song said. “It’s not going to be scientists coming in and saying this is the way it is,” she said. “We’ve been taking the wrong approach — we’ve been trying to study the community instead of incorporating the community as a partner in our approach.”

UC Merced said extra emphasis will be placed on understanding the factors that influence tobacco and cannabis habits among the Valley’s ethnically diverse teens and young adults. The center will also involve youths to serve as advocates for tobacco and cannabis control.

Healthy House, a nonprofit agency in Merced, will help with interpretation, said Belle Vallador, a language and culture specialist. “Healthy House very much has the capacity to handle this program. They will be needing a lot of interpreters and translators here to go through and disseminate information.”

Information gathered by the center could help county supervisors and council members in the Valley decide on such regulations as those about commercial growing of marijuana and recreational use, Gonzalez said. The four counties in the central San Joaquin Valley have been opposed to recreational use, but some cities have allowed commercial marijuana-growing operations.

The Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program recognized that the Valley needs support to understand tobacco and marijuana policies and that the UC Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center could provide that help, said Song, a health psychology professor and expert in adolescent smoking behavior. “That’s why we were the first center to be funded.”