“I got interested in tobacco-related health disparities because tobacco control and racial and social justice really go hand in hand.”
Associate Professor of Communication, Annenberg School for Communication, UPenn
By: Michelle Johnson (2/19/21)
How did you first get interested in health inequities and preventative health interventions?
I have to admit that it started way before. Before I started my career in academia, I served in the Health Promotion Board in Singapore conducting national- and community-level health promotion campaigns as well as interventions on a whole host of health issues, including obesity, tobacco use, cancer screening and prevention, chronic disease self-management.
That got me interested in the prevention side of things and not waiting until we see major health issues occurring, including heart disease, cancers, and respiratory illnesses from smoking tobacco. I got interested in tobacco-related health disparities because tobacco control and racial and social justice really go hand in hand.
The tobacco industry uses manipulative and targeted marketing tactics to promote their tobacco products among racial and ethnic minority, low-income, veterans, and LGBTQ populations. Tobacco is still the number one preventable cause of excess deaths, human suffering, and disease in the US and the world. I see my work as trying to limit the impact of the use of tobacco on public health and population health and specifically populations that are disproportionately impacted by tobacco use for multiple reasons.
How has it been working with community partners in your research?
I see it as a two-way street in terms of us trying to share with them the science that we’re doing and also co-creating an intervention that will stand a much higher chance of succeeding in the real world and being implemented and sustained over a long period of time. Our community partners are very open to perspectives from the research team, myself, and other investigators while being really open about sharing their feedback to keep our research grounded in the real world. [Feedback includes] what they understand as being potentially relevant versus offensive for the community.
In our recent project, Resist, our process had been to start with existing campaign messages that were targeting LGBTQ communities to reduce smoking. We whittled these messages down, and this process was aided by the input from our community advisory board members and who are able to tell us, “This is not gonna fly, you shouldn’t use the terms that are going to be triggering for young adult women who are sexual minorities.” [They also make] sure that we’re using terms, phrases, language that are contemporary to the young generation of women who identify as a sexual minority.
That is something that I will not be able to bring to the table because I don’t belong to that community. I relied on them to provide us with the contextual experience; they shape the way that we conduct pre-testing in a way that I feel will be much more grounded in reality and the real world that will ultimately be more impactful for the target audience.
What are some of the larger impacts you foresee or hope to see from this research?
The idea is that the intervention will be more likely to reach a larger segment of the target population, in this case, young adult, sexual minority women. [We hope] that they will pay attention to it and internalize and encode the information in a way that influences their decisions about quitting smoking or not starting smoking and seeking help or approved treatments for smoking cessation. We see this as a pathway towards ultimately influencing and reducing tobacco use in this population as well as limiting any health-related issues from long-term use of tobacco.
What do you think students interested in research should know?
There is a whole lot of rejection that occurs; I get rejections from funders, from journals, from the data. One thing to know for students new to research and wanting to explore a career in academia and research is to learn from your rejections. Every rejection is not necessarily the be-all, end-all, but it’s a lesson learned. I study minority stress, I study resilience. The idea that rejection builds some resilience really translates in my own personal experience.
What excites me on a day-to-day basis is the discovery of new information, new evidence, new approaches. It excites me that there’s a kernel of reality and truth that is waiting for me to uncover in terms of what communication approaches and strategies that will make a difference in another person’s life and in improving the health outcomes of a community that I care about.