Woman with vape
Woman with vape

The American Heart Association is investing nearly $17 million to fund a two-year research initiative, ENACT (End Nicotine Addiction in Children and Teens), led by a national network of scientists focusing on the health impacts of e-cigarettes and other nicotine delivery systems on youth and young adults.

As part of this network, researchers at the University of Louisville Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute will conduct studies to better understand youth vaping. Institute researcher Joy Hart, professor in the UofL Department of Communication, will lead a team engaging local youth to learn about what drives youth to use e-cigarettes, the health effects of this use and how to motivate young people to stop using these products.

This investment is the latest in a multipronged, ongoing commitment announced last fall by the American Heart Association to fight the growing epidemic of youth vaping.

“E-cigarettes are being marketed as a healthy option to traditional cigarettes, but no one knows if vaping is safe in the long run because e-cigarettes haven’t been around long enough to be studied deeply. Some diseases can take years and even decades to develop, so there is more work needed to fully understand all the dangers,” said American Heart Association President Robert A. Harrington, Arthur L. Bloomfield Professor of Medicine and chair of the department of medicine at Stanford University. “There’s certainly plenty of indication they’re harmful for growing minds and bodies because we know e-cigarettes contain nicotine and we know the harmful effects of nicotine, but it’s important we grow that overall body of scientific evidence.”

Harrington said there’s a sense of urgency because, at a time when regular cigarette smoking has reached an all-time low, young people are turning to e-cigarettes at epidemic proportions, with nearly one in four high school students reportedly vaping. That’s why these research projects will be high-impact and fast tracked, only two years in length and funded at levels among the highest individual grants awarded in the association’s history. The initiative is designed to produce turnkey programs to support youth as well as provide clear evidence to inform policy decisions.

Joy Hart, Ph.D., professor in the UofL Department of Communication and member of the UofL Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute
Joy Hart, professor in the UofL Department of Communication and member of the UofL Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute

The UofL research project is part of the Rapidly Advancing Discovery to Arrest the Outbreak of Youth Vaping Center (VAPERACE) at Boston University. Hart will spearhead community outreach activities and will work with other center investigators to understand the health impact of vaping on youth and to develop new approaches to vaping cessation. The research team includes Kandi Walker, Rachel Keith and Aruni Bhatnagar, director of the Envirome Institute.

“Tobacco use causes health issues for many Kentuckians, and is particularly concerning in young people. We are pleased that researchers in the UofL Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute will contribute to this significant effort by the American Heart Association and hopefully reduce the negative health effects of tobacco use on the next generation,” said Neeli Bendapudi, president of the University of Louisville.

 “Studying vaping among youth has always been important. It became even more important with widespread lung illness among young people,” Bhatnagar said. “Now, in context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears that those who use nicotine may be at greater risk of serious COVID-19 illness.”

In addition to UofL, VAPERACE at Boston University includes projects by Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University. The projects supported by the center include: basic research using human-induced pluripotent stem cell samples to test e-cigarette component toxicity, mobile health technology to measure the physiological cardiovascular impacts of e-cigarettes on youth in real-world settings and a virtual reality and text messaging-delivered e-cigarette cessation program for youth developed by combining social media methods with focus groups. 

Two additional projects funded by the American Heart Association as part of the network are based at Ohio State University and Yale University. Overall, network researchers will work to identify the biological impacts of vaping on multiple organ systems (heart, brain, lungs, vascular system, etc.), behavioral factors and specific social influencers of health to reverse these trends.

“The rapid pace of e-cigarette products entering the market and targeting our youth requires an ambitious, aggressive approach beyond the incremental pace achieved through traditional research mechanisms. Policymakers, regulators, medical professionals and schools are looking to enact strategies, policies and solutions but there’s inadequate evidence to inform these efforts,” Harrington said. “The American Heart Association is proud to be on the forefront of bringing together some of the best minds in their fields to conduct the research, development and testing to bring bold and innovative results to address the growing epidemic of youth vaping in our commitment of longer, healthier lives for all.”

Betty Coffman
Betty Coffman is a Communications Coordinator focused on research and innovation at UofL. A UofL alumna and Louisville native, she served as a writer and editor for local and national publications and as an account services coordinator and copywriter for marketing and design firms prior to joining UofL’s Office of Communications and Marketing.