By Leslie Ridgeway

Despite decades of efforts to control its use, tobacco continues to be the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States. USC is one of 14 academic institutions designated to receive significant funding to contribute to a new, first-of-its-kind regulatory science tobacco program intended to support tobacco product regulations.

The Keck School of Medicine of USC Department of Preventive Medicine will receive $20 million over five years, establishing one of 14 Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science (TCORS) in Los Angeles. Jonathan Samet, MD, MS, professor and chair of preventive medicine at the Keck School, and Mary Ann Pentz, PhD, professor of preventive medicine and director of the Institute for Prevention Research at the Keck School, are the principal investigators. The funding comes from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through the National Institutes of Health.

Jonathan Samet

Jonathan Samet

The purpose of the TCORS program is to give the FDA the scientific base it needs to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and distribution of tobacco products to the public in a rapidly changing tobacco control landscape, Samet said.

“Our center’s mission is to address smoking in vulnerable populations, including those with high rates of smoking and those likely to be targeted by the tobacco industry, such as racial and ethnic minorities, those with less education and with lower incomes,” Samet said. “TCORS will have a broad program of research that will develop methods and produce evidence to help reduce the impact of tobacco on public health.”

Its location in the Los Angeles area puts the Keck School TCORS team in a unique position to study the effects of tobacco marketing and regulation.

“The Los Angeles basin represents one of the largest, most diverse ‘laboratories’ for studying vulnerable populations,” Pentz said. “In addition to current smokers, there are those who may not have smoked yet but are being targeted through social media and other methods not as easily monitored as conventional advertising. Besides current and prospective tobacco users, another of our vulnerable populations is the small retail vendor, especially in Latino, African-American, Korean and tribal areas. They are subject to FDA regulations, but may not yet be knowledgeable about how exactly to comply with them.”

Mary Ann Pentz

Mary Ann Pentz

The research supported by the TCORS initiative will provide scientific evidence within the following seven FDA tobacco-related research interest areas: diversity of tobacco products, reducing addiction, reducing toxicity and  carcinogenicity, adverse health consequences, communications, tobacco product marketing, and economics and policies.

The TCORS program brings together investigators from across the country to aid in generating research to inform the development and evaluation of tobacco product regulations. Each TCORS site identified a targeted research goal. Taken together, the TCORS sites will increase knowledge across basic and applied research on tobacco and addiction. The program also provides young investigators with training to ensure the next generation of tobacco regulatory scientists.

“That we were able to compete successfully for this grant reflects the depth of tobacco-related experience at USC,” Samet said. “We’re working with colleagues throughout the university, including the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and the state, including health departments and community groups.”