Tobacco Use & Smoking

Photo by John Costello

Photo by John Costello

Why It Matters  |  What We Are Doing  |  Who Is Involved



Why It Matters

Tobacco use is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced. Almost half the world’s children breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke.There are more than one billion smokers in the world today, according to the World Health Organization. Tobacco caused 100 million deaths in the 20th century, and, if current trends continue, will cause up to one billion deaths in the 21st century. Most of these deaths will be in developing countries, where 80% of today’s smokers live. Tobacco kills up to half of all users, and is a risk factor for six of the eight leading causes of death in the world. Despite decades of work to reduce its use, tobacco continues to be the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S.


What We Are Doing

Reducing preventable deaths from tobacco use by promoting social, behavioral, environmental, policy and system change is a major focus at the Gillings School. Read More

Gillings School faculty are national thought leaders and change makers in the regulation of the sales and marketing of tobacco products..  UNC houses two of 14 new centers of tobacco regulatory science. The centers, funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, are designed to analyze and develop more effective tobacco product regulations for the U.S. that are now possible under the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. The positioning of these two centers at UNC builds on a long history of U.S. and global tobacco policy and intervention initiatives by faculty member Kurt Ribisl and researchers from across the Gillings School.

For the past decade, Ribisl has led a team of researchers who have tracked the number of online cigarette vendors. Many of these vendors do not charge excise taxes, nor do they take steps to prevent minors from purchasing cigarettes. This research was highly influential in the passing of the Prevent all Cigarette Trafficking Act of 2010, which requires Internet sellers to pay all taxes and verify ages of customers.

The Gillings School is partnering with Cambridge University in the U.K. to assess how convenience stores are selling and marketing tobacco and alcohol products, and whether they are violating U.K. and U.S. policies. The team found that nearly 60% of tobacco retailers in London sold e-cigarettes, one of the first studies on e-cigarette availability at retailers.

In Lebanon, decades of free and unrestricted tobacco product advertising, marketing, and sponsorship by the multinational tobacco industry led to a 42% rate of smoking among men and some of the highest smoking rates among  women in the Middle East region.  Following a national advertising ban in 2011, Gillings researchers audited point-of-sale tobacco advertising in a large district of Beirut and found widespread violations of the ban. The authors recommended  stronger enforcement of polices banning point of sale tobacco advertising at retail outlets in Lebanon.

Our researchers also design smoking cessation interventions aimed at groups where smoking rates are particularly high, such as patients and staff in alcohol and drug treatment centers and people living with severe and persistent mental illness.

At laboratory level, researchers are studying the interactions between smoking, individual genetic makeup, and the development of chronic diseases and hardening of the arteries. This work is leading to new strategies for preventing and treating smoking-related conditions.

Who Is Involved

Our leaders in tobacco use and smoking come from across the Gilling School, and include our world-class faculty, staff, post-docs and students. This overview only captures a fraction of the important research, teaching, and public service efforts in tobacco use and smoking at the Gillings School. Please explore the individual leader descriptions to learn more about their work.