BEIRUT: A team of researchers from the American University of Beirut has been awarded a $2.1 million grant by the United States government to study e-cigarettes.
The five-year study will be directed by Dr. Alan Shihadeh, a professor of mechanical engineering at AUB, with additional research conducted by Dr. Rima Nakkash, from the Department of Health Promotion and Community Health, and Dr. Najat Saliba of the university’s Atmospheric and Analytical Chemistry Lab.
Funded by the American Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute of Health, the AUB study is part of a larger $18 million government initiative to establish a Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, which will unite the researchers from AUB with colleagues from Virginia Commonwealth University and Penn State Hershey College of Medicine.
The center, which will be based in the United States, aims to bring together these leading university researchers to determine the effects of new tobacco products like e-cigarettes. Information gleaned from CSTP studies will be used by the U.S. government to inform policymaking and tobacco regulation.
Smokeless e-cigarette devices have emerged as a popular alternative to traditional cigarettes. Instead of igniting tobacco, e-cigarettes use a mini-heater to vaporize nicotine, the active chemical in tobacco.
Because e-cigarettes don’t produce smoke, manufacturers often claim they are healthier than traditional cigarettes and can even help longtime smokers quit.
To date, however, researchers and policymakers know relatively little about how these devices work, how they are used by the public and what, if any, risks are associated with so-called “smokeless tobacco,” Shihadeh said.
AUB has been charged with researching and analyzing how much nicotine and other toxins e-cigarette users actually ingest.
The focal point of the AUB study will be a high-tech smoking automaton.
“We developed a smoking robot that mimics exactly human puffing behavior,” Shihadeh said. “That was really our selling point.”
The researchers have created a machine that “records every puff that someone takes on a smoking device,” he explained. That device is then “replayed” through the smoking robot, allowing researchers to analyze the trace amounts of chemicals and toxins found in tobacco smoke or vapor.
With data gleaned from their smoking robot, AUB researchers will develop a mathematical model that can be used to predict expected nicotine yields from different styles of e-cigarette devices.
“This will enable regulators, for example, to rapidly identify products that, if used in a realistic manner, are likely to produce excessively high nicotine doses,” Shihadeh said.
Shihadeh stressed that the market for new tobacco products like e-cigarettes was rapidly evolving, and the researcher admitted a whole new range of tobacco devices could be available to consumers by the time the study was completed.
While their study will initially focus on e-cigarettes, it will serve as a paradigm for future research.
“Our study is more or less illustrating a model for how one can evaluate any kind of [tobacco] product that comes on the market,” he said. “It’s an iterative, ongoing cycle.”