Reducing the harm caused by tobacco

Diana Carroll

Q&A with Dana Mowls Carroll, Ph.D., M.P.H., new faculty recruit

Dana Mowls Carroll, an epidemiologist and expert in commercial tobacco prevention and control, and tobacco regulatory science, is a key member of the Masonic Cancer Center’s tobacco research program. With Masonic support, she is partnering with faculty from across the U, as well as members of Minnesota’s American Indian and rural communities, to reduce the harm caused by commercial tobacco.

What is your role at the University of Minnesota and your overall research focus? 

After earning my Ph.D. in epidemiology and working in tobacco research at the University of Oklahoma, I came to the University of Minnesota in 2017 to join the Masonic Cancer Center’s tobacco research program. I’ve been an assistant professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences at the U’s School of Public Health since November 2019.

My research takes on two different areas. One is community-based research—I collaborate with the American Indian and rural communities in Minnesota to help reduce commercial tobacco use. Together we are exploring how genetics, smartphone apps, and cultural practices can help increase smoking cessation. The other area of expertise that I have is in tobacco regulatory sciences, which is the science base used to inform the F.D.A. of ways to reduce the public health impact of tobacco products. One particular area is how to reduce the addictiveness and appeal of commercial cigarettes. 

What drew you to tobacco research and related community health aspects?

During my master’s degree studies in public health, I started to understand the gravity of how tobacco is the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the United States and many countries. I was especially focused on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smoking cessation is the best way to improve outcomes in patients with COPD who smoke, so I started to look into the role of smoking. This opened up how smoking can impact so many different people and families, either through direct or secondhand exposure. Given that smoking is still to this day the leading preventable cause of disease and death, I knew that I could hopefully make some impact through tobacco control prevention efforts.

We have a rich history of tobacco research at the University of Minnesota. Was that one of the things that attracted you to come here from the University of Oklahoma? 

I was really intrigued by the potential to work with an amazing multidisciplinary team of tobacco research experts. I was also really interested in helping the communities most impacted by tobacco. During my time in Oklahoma, I had the opportunity to work with the American Indian community in Oklahoma City. I then learned of a study that Dorothy Hatsukami and others at the Masonic Cancer Center had just started with American Indian tribes in Minnesota to look at susceptibility to smoking and lung cancer. It was a perfect opportunity for me to continue my work in that area and to further help reduce tobacco disparities experienced in the American Indian population. So I came to Minnesota.  

In the American Indian population, tobacco can be used as a spiritual practice. How do you balance the fine line between big tobacco and the spiritual nature of it? 

For centuries, tobacco has had a sacred role for many American Indian tribes. It’s viewed as a gift from the Creator and often used in prayer and offerings. Commercial tobacco, which is manufactured by big tobacco companies and created to be very addictive, is very different from traditional tobacco. It’s important to reframe how we think about tobacco, to move away from the addictive use of tobacco and to emphasize how it can be used in a way that’s sacred and medicinal for tribes. In fact, this is an approach that we are exploring with a tribe to hopefully increase commercial smoking cessation. 

What are your thoughts on some of the tobacco bans that have been enacted? 

It’s wonderful that nationwide the minimum age to purchase tobacco has been raised to 21. Hopefully this will be very helpful because what we see is that most smokers start smoking before the age of 18. In high school, you have some 18-year-olds who can purchase tobacco for younger students. So pushing that age to 21 will help in reducing youth initiation. We’ve also historically seen some health disparities in the use of menthol cigarettes, and that usage is higher among African Americans and also among youth. So it’s great to see a ban on menthol in efforts to help reduce these disparities and to prevent kids from getting hooked on cigarettes.

With all the research you’re doing, what gives you hope?

What gives me hope is working with the community that I have the opportunity to work with and learning that with their knowledge and cultural practices, they have the expertise to be the major player in solving health problems. It’s exciting to see this empowerment, and that helps to move the needle in reducing tobacco use and cancer in their community. 

What has it meant to you to receive support from Minnesota Masonic Charities? 

It is truly an honor to have the support of Minnesota Masonic Charities. Their support allows me to commit my effort and time to research with communities in Minnesota that experience some of the greatest cancer disparities in the state. Such research is providing insights into new and effective ways to combat commercial tobacco use and cancer disparities and is also helping to empower communities through creating the capacity for research. Ultimately, their support is helping to make Minnesota healthier and I am deeply grateful.

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