Sabrina Smiley grew up in Selma, Alabama, fully aware of its importance in the civil rights struggle in this country.

“I feel like my passion for health equity and social justice stems from me being from Selma,” she said of the city where, in 1965, Black voting-rights activists led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, resulting in a brutal crackdown by white police. It came to be called “Bloody Sunday,” and two days later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a much larger march that helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Selma is a key city in the history of the civil rights movement,” Smiley said, adding: “I love being from the South. I feel like it’s given me a solid foundation to persevere in some really difficult situations. My generation looks to uphold the legacy of the civil rights movement.”

Smiley’s parents were both longtime educators — her late father Howard Smiley a high school science teacher, her mother Naomi Hollis-Smiley an elementary school math teacher — and “together they instilled in me the value of education, a strong work ethic, and a sense of community responsibility,” Smiley said. But as she grew up and kept advancing in her education, being the first member of her family to earn a PhD, she realized how many built-in obstacles were in her way. “Establishing an independent research career can be intimidating,” she said. “How do you develop a grant proposal? How do you develop a budget? How do you hire staff? So you need a network of support.”

Smiley, PhD, MPH, MCHES and an assistant professor of research in the Department of Preventive Medicine and the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research (IPR) at the Keck School, is getting that support. She earned a Diversity Supplement grant from the National Cancer Institute to continue her research on the marketing of tobacco products.

“Diversity supplements are important for underrepresented early-career investigators, because they break down the institutional and economic barriers that prevent us from competing for NIH funding,” Smiley said, “so it’s also important to have a good mentoring team and a good university to invest in you.”

The Keck School has been that place for Smiley. At the school’s Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science (TCORS), she not only investigates neighborhood racial and ethnic disparities in tobacco marketing, she’s examining the interplay between federal tobacco regulation, retailer compliance, and consumer behavior. The grant will provide Smiley research funding support to:

  • describe marketing practices of local vape shops in multiple racial/ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and to examine parallels with online marketing practices.
  • examine vape shop employees’ perceptions of their customers’ preferences pertaining to how hypothetical (but possible) federal regulations in product and marketing characteristics impact product appeal, perceived anticipated future purchases, and use of vaping devices and combustible tobacco products.

“Being awarded this Diversity Supplement means that I will also be able to gain additional training in tobacco regulatory science and successfully compete for an NCI K22 grant that will further launch me into an independent research career.”

“Dr. Smiley has been exceptionally productive since she joined the scientific team in the Tobacco Center for Regulatory Sciences,” said Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, PhD, MPH, a professor of preventive medicine and co-PI (alongside Steve Sussman, PhD) of the Diversity Supplement parent grant. “She has written numerous papers providing insights into the tobacco retail environment in African American, American Indian and other vulnerable communities. One of her papers examining the specific targeting of women and girls by the tobacco industry is likely to be quoted for years to come.”

Smiley said tobacco is a social justice issue, “given my interest and commitment to reducing health disparities around tobacco use.

After her NCI grant, she received a Rapid Response Research Award to Accelerate Policy from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, for $550,000 over two years. She’ll examine the impact of menthol cigarette sales restrictions in Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles and among Black smokers residing in those neighborhoods. 

“While more Black smokers want to quit and make more quit attempts than white smokers, they successfully quit at a lower rate. These disparities may be influenced by various factors, including the use of menthol cigarettes, which are disproportionately marketed in Black neighborhoods compared to noncombustible tobacco products, and which approximately 80 percent of Black smokers prefer. So we need policy interventions that restrict the sale of these products, but we also need behavioral interventions that are culturally specific in order to reduce disparities and health outcomes around tobacco use. That is the overarching goal of my research program.”  

— by Landon Hall