Linking Biomedical and Behavioral Research for Tobacco Use Prevention

Over the past eight years, the Foundation has supported a wide array of initiatives aimed at reducing the use of tobacco, especially among young people. These include approaches as varied as creating local anti-smoking coalitions, restricting young people's access to cigarettes, funding anti-smoking advertisements, and enlisting Major League Baseball in a campaign against spit tobacco (described by Leonard Koppett in last year's Anthology).

Despite the Foundation's wide-ranging efforts—and those of federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and voluntary organizations such as the American Cancer Society—teenage smoking is on the rise. Painfully little is known about why young people start smoking, how they become addicted, and why some are able to stop. This reflects a lack of knowledge more generally about the complex interactions of environment, biology and behavior that drive people to do things that are known to be harmful to them.

To gain a better understanding of these interactions as they apply to teenage smoking, a group of researchers from different disciplines came together in Sundance, Utah, in May 1997. In this chapter of the Anthology, Nancy Kaufman, a former vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Karyn Feiden, a freelance journalist, describe the discussions that took place at the Sundance conference and the insights that emerged about new, transdisciplinary approaches to research. They go on to discuss related efforts funded partly or wholly by the Foundation, such as creating a research network to study the roots of tobacco dependence, setting up a university-based transdisciplinary study group, and convening a meeting on transdisciplinary research at the National Institutes of Health. 

The attempt to craft a new transdisciplinary approach to adolescent smoking is an example of how a philanthropy can benefit from being a "learning" organization—one that makes programmatic decisions based on research findings and other evidence. It is an approach that requires patience, a long-range perspective, and a commitment to stay the course of funding in an area until new understanding of the problem and how to address it emerge. The authors make the case that this long-range perspective is important in the area of tobacco control.

The Sundance conference and its progeny have already borne fruit. Both the federal government and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have recently approved substantial funding to carry out transdisciplinary research on tobacco use, including careful attention to the public policy implications of findings that emerge.