Cigarette smoking has been found to be the leading preventable cause of death and disability, not only in the United States, but worldwide. While rates of smoking in the United States have declined, it remains a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, cancers, hypertension, as well as other illnesses. Moreover, smoking in the African American community has not decreased and many have switched from tobacco cigarettes to electronic cigarettes, hoping that they are not as harmful.

It is well known that African American and very often Latino populations suffer more from hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and various types of cancer. Comparing the numbers of white individuals to numbers of African Americans and Latinos with these conditions, whites have lower rates. This is what is called a disparity in the field of health science research. Today, smoking is most often a habit of poorer populations, so smoking can also be considered a health risk disparity.

Do you know someone who smokes electronic cigarettes? Do you know if they are less damaging to your health than tobacco cigarettes?

Researchers are working to find answers to these and many more questions relevant to helping to decrease the amount of illness, disability, and premature death caused by tobacco use and other culprits, and they are doing it right in our backyard! Yes, researchers at the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU), the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles, are hard at work looking for causes, developing treatments, and hopefully finding cures for many illnesses and diseases that plague our poor and under-resourced communities, like those in South and East Los Angeles.

How is research today different from much of the research conducted in the past that ended up hurting our people?

Until recently, research was conducted on, not with, communities, and there was inadequate oversight to ensure researchers’ ethical conduct. Today, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) oversee all aspects of a research project to insure that it is conducted ethically. Today, IRBs include community members. Their role is to be an equal partner on the board in helping to protect the all research participants and ensure that research projects are culturally appropriate and relevant to the health needs of our communities.

Another key difference is that persons with diverse backgrounds participate as part of the non-traditional research teams in what is called “community engaged research”. The teams include professionally trained academic researchers who are joined by graduate and undergraduate students, community residents, patients and representatives from community based organizations, businesses, churches and other faith organizations and they help design what the research project will look like. Community representatives are valued on advisory committees that oversee the overall project. Projects are designed to collect data (information) in various forms. Research team members may conduct interviews, focus groups, plan and conduct conferences in the community, provide input in the analyses of the research data results, and report the results (outcomes) back to the community, at professional conferences, and publish co-authored articles about the research. All of this is done with the community as a key partner during all stages.

More recently, basic science researchers are welcoming community representation on their teams. These are the scientists who may conduct early research to ensure later research with humans will be safe. They, too, are recognizing the value of partnering with community representatives.

Why is health science research important?

Health science research studies are important because they help us to better understand illness and disease and what treatments might work best for various populations. Health research is sponsored by grants from various federal, state, and local government entities, such as the National Institutes of Health and the California Tobacco Research Disease Research Program, with smaller amounts from foundations and private organizations. That’s right. Most community engaged research is paid for by your tax dollars, so why not learn more and get involved?

With January being synonymous with New Year’s resolutions, which for some of us may include quitting smoking, I would like to highlight, Dr. Shehla Pervin, a researcher at CDU. She conducts studies to learn what causes triple negative breast cancer, which disproportionately affects African American women, seeks to develop better treatments and a potential cure for this dreaded disease. Dr. Pervin is part of a research team headed by Drs. Theodore Friedman and Amiya Sinha-Hikim, specifically looking at the effects of e-cigarettes on cancer and other illnesses and diseases.

We should no longer consider research as something mysterious, but as something that warrants our attention and involvement. Scientific research is being conducted in, and with communities, for the purpose of getting a better understanding of how we can improve our health outcomes by learning from science.