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Once the world’s tobacco capital, North Carolina is becoming a capital of research aimed at tougher tobacco regulation

CHAPEL HILL A perfect growing climate and companies such as R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem and American Tobacco in Durham once made North Carolina the cigarette capital of the world. Now, though, the state is becoming a capital of research to build tougher tobacco regulations.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs solid data to underpin its 4-year-old authority to regulate tobacco products, and so it decided to fund 14 “Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science.” UNC Chapel Hill is the only institution in the country to win two of them, and together they will bring in nearly $40 million in grants spread over five years and employ nearly 100 people.

One, led by Kurt Ribisl, a professor of health behavior at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, will be based at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Among other things, it will explore better methods of communicating the risks of tobacco products to consumers, particularly for the array of emerging tobacco products such as e-cigarettes.

Effective communication strategies are critical for such things as warning labels on products and for public health campaigns in the media.

The other center, headed by Robert Tarran, an associate professor of cell biology and physiology, will look into the effects of emerging tobacco products on the lungs as well as other aspects of smoking research. It will be based at the School of Medicine.

The two UNC proposals weren’t coordinated. There was a connection, though, said Stan Glantz of the University of California-San Francisco, one of the nation’s best-known researchers into tobacco control and an anti-smoking crusader.

“What those two proposals had in common was that the quality of science being done at UNC is high,” Glantz said. “The competition was fierce, and it is extremely impressive that one place got two of them funded.”

Tobacco still big

The state is still a major producer of cigarettes, and in 2011 North Carolina farmers grew 42 percent of the nation’s production of tobacco, more than any other state, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

But foreign competition and a drop in U.S. consumption have cut into the value of the crop. Tobacco represented just 4 percent of state farm cash receipts in 2011, easily topped by the likes of chickens, hogs, turkeys, cotton, corn and soybeans and barely edging out eggs.

The drop in cigarette consumption, researchers say, is one reason that tobacco companies are coming out with so many new products in recent years. That, in turn, means the FDA needs data on one new thing after another.

The various FDA centers will perform research on topics such as regulating the ever-widening array of tobacco products and marketing practices, reducing addiction and cutting toxicity and carcinogens in tobacco products.

Several of the centers, including both here, will look into aspects of trendy “delivery methods” such as hookahs, e-cigarettes and flavored cigars.

Not only will the centers develop new science, they will create scientists in the emerging field: Each has a training component, and graduate students can move between the centers to broaden their training, Tarran said.

His lab at UNC has been doing research on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years. Some of the same techniques it uses for that, such as blowing smoke across live lung cells to see the effects, should be easy to adapt to, say, hookah smoke, he said.

And flavored cigars, he said, are an example of the kinds of reasons the FDA needs stronger science. It banned flavored cigarettes because it was perceived that they were being sold to younger people.

“The tobacco industry responded by making flavored cigars,” Tarran said. “They seem little different from the cigarettes, except that they have a tobacco wrapper rather than papers, but there is no way to know without proper testing, whether they represent the same level of danger.”

The various centers across the country are expected to collaborate, and their leaders are expected to gather next month to start building relationships for that, Glantz said.

Each center will lead several projects into specific topics of research. Ribisl’s includes some work that will be done by researchers at Wake Forest University, which itself was brought to Winston-Salem by a gift of land from the Reynolds family.

The irony of North Carolina’s rise as a force in research for fighting tobacco use isn’t lost on Ribisl.

“It’s kind of amazing to see that transformation,” he said. “Here you have Durham, which was once a capital of cigarette making, and now it has become a center of medicine, and Carolina is a center of tobacco control research.”

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