August 22, 2019

Two researchers at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health have been chosen to receive Career Development Awards (known as K Awards) from the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Sarah Mills

Dr. Sarah Mills

Dr. Marissa Hall

Dr. Marissa Hall

Marissa Hall, PhD, and Sarah Mills, PhD, are both assistant professors in the Gillings School’s Department of Health Behavior and members of UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“I could not be more proud of Dr. Hall and Dr. Mills! They both earned K Awards on their first submission,” said Kurt Ribisl, PhD, professor and chair in the Department of Health Behavior. “Their innovative research will advance efforts to address obesity and tobacco use, two of the leading behavioral risk factors for heart disease and cancer.”

Designing and evaluating pictorial health warnings for food products

Hall received a K01 — a Mentored Research Scientist Career Development Award — from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to test the impact of health warnings on unhealthy food purchases among Latinos in the United States.

“Text-only health warnings, which typically appear only in English, could limit access to information among the 17.5 million Latinos in the U.S. with limited English proficiency,” Hall said. “My K01 will test whether image-based warnings help overcome literacy issues and language barriers, with the hope that they have potential to reduce health disparities among Latinos in regard to cardiovascular disease.”

Through the ~$738,000 grant, Hall also will receive training in innovative methods like eye tracking, which objectively captures where people look on a product package, and using virtual store environments to conduct experiments. This research is especially timely, as several countries have enacted policies requiring warnings on the front of packaged foods high in nutrients like saturated fat, sodium and sugar.

Hall is the principal investigator of the grant. Her interdisciplinary UNC mentorship team includes Barry Popkin, PhD, in the Department of Nutrition; Stephanie Wheeler, PhD, in the Department of Health Policy and Management; Gerardo Heiss, PhD, in the Department of Epidemiology; Adam Goldstein, MD, in the Department of Family Medicine; and Allison Lazard, PhD, in the School of Media and Journalism.

“This K01 will help me achieve my long-term career goal of becoming a leader in behavioral research to inform obesity prevention policy, with a focus on Latino health disparities,” Hall shared.

Modeling the public health impact of a national menthol cigarette ban

Mills is the principal investigator of a K01 from the National Cancer Institute. Her grant, in the amount of ~$727,000, will focus on the particular threat of menthol cigarettes, which — being flavored — provide a common initiation point for adolescent smoking and are more difficult to quit than non-menthol cigarettes. In addition, menthol cigarettes are used disproportionately by youth, low-income and racial/ethnic minority smokers.

In 2011, the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC), a Congressionally mandated committee assembled to advise the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), reported that “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.” Despite TPSAC’s conclusion, the FDA has not banned menthol cigarettes, but has requested additional research to inform regulatory action.

“The FDA needs the best evidence to guide its policy making,” Mills said. “This project will pool data across multiple jurisdictions and countries that have banned menthol cigarettes and use statistical modeling to estimate the public health impact of a national menthol ban in the United States.”

Potential impacts include reduced smoking, cardiovascular disease and tobacco-related cancers.

“African-American men have higher rates of lung cancer death than white men, and menthol cigarettes likely contribute to this disparity,” Mills explained. “Among other things, this project will assess whether a national menthol ban would reduce or eliminate racial disparities in lung cancer.”

UNC mentors and collaborators on Mills’ K01 grant include Ribisl; Kristen Hassmiller Lich, PhD, in the Department of Health Policy and Management; Yang Claire Yang, PhD, in the Department of Sociology; and Jennifer Walker, MSIS, in the UNC Health Sciences Library.

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