Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and cigarette smoking causes three in 10 of all cancer deaths. Smoking also accounts for more than 30 percent of the difference in life expectancy among different socioeconomic groups.

Roberta Freitas-Lemos, research assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, recently received a career development award to explore the ways in which nicotine tax policies can influence health disparities. The award of more than $680,000 over five years from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health is designed to promote career development and mentored training of cancer researchers from underrepresented groups. 

It will provide Freitas-Lemos resources to launch independent, cancer-related research on eliminating tobacco use and its unequal harms. 

“My previous work has focused on people living in vulnerable situations and forecasting the effects of regulatory policies on tobacco and nicotine consumption among different users,” she said.

Freitas-Lemos studied psychology at the Pontifical Catholic University in São Paulo, Brazil, before earning a doctorate from the University of Brasilia. She joined the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute as postdoctoral fellow in 2019.

Taxes are widely used to reduce tobacco use and can by extension reduce the incidence of cancer. But they can exacerbate socioeconomic disparities. Freitas-Lemos is testing a tax proposal designed to reduce tobacco dependence and tobacco-related disparities in cigarette smokers from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. 

She plans to develop a new tax proposal based on the abuse liability of tobacco products and investigate its effects on purchase behavior using the Experimental Tobacco Marketplace, a tool developed at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Her proposal uses an abuse liability assessment model, which predicts the likelihood of tobacco addiction or harmful use.

Warren Bickel, professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and Freitas-Lemos’ primary mentor on the project, developed the marketplace to explore the effect of tax and regulatory policy on nicotine purchases. Bickel is also director of the institute's Addiction Recovery Research Center.

Freitas-Lemos will recruit a diverse group of tobacco users who will use an experimental account to purchase tobacco and replacement therapy products through the marketplace. By adjusting the product mix and pricing, scientists can better predict purchase behavior. 

“My long-term research goal is to become an independent researcher investigating the differential impact of policies on tobacco initiation, use and cessation among individuals who experience tobacco-related cancer disparities,” Freitas-Lemos said. 

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