I am writing this blog in Washington DC where I was invited to speak at the 50th Meeting of the Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society. I was speaking in a workshop on the Heritable Hazards of Smoking. This session focussed on the evidence for potential intergenerational effects of tobacco smoke, whereby exposure in one generation can lead to germline mutations or epigenetic changes that can be passed onto subsequent generations. I have recently had the privilege of working with collaborators in Norway on a study that has shown that fathers’ smoking during early adolescence and grandmothers’ and mothers’ smoking during pregnancy may independently increase asthma risk in offspring (1).
The finding that paternal smoking before 15 years of age was associated with asthma in their offspring is of particular concern, as smoking in 11-15-year-old boys has increased in Europe over recent decades (2). At present, public health strategies do not focus on teenage boys with regard to the health of their future offspring, and to do so would represent a paradigm shift in preventive policies.
Also talking in the session was Professor Ilona Jaspers from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill talking about the Toxicology of E-cigarettes. This was highly topical given the outbreak of lung injury in the US in individuals who vape. There have been 530* cases of lung injury recorded by the Centre for Disease Control and seven deaths have been confirmed in 6 states (3), She shared alarming figures that suggested >20% of 15-16 year olds in the United States used e-cigarettes in the past week (4), not only potentially affecting their own health, but if our own research is correct, the health of their future offspring. In the UK the 2019 ASH Smokefree GB Youth Survey indicated that 15.4% of 11-18 year olds have tried vaping (5).
After the plenary talks in the workshop, we had some interesting discussions about how we communicate science to the public, particularly children and adolescents. Apparently, the rising epidemic of e-cigarette use amongst adolescents went unrecognised at first because if you ask if they used e-cigarettes the answer is no, however if you ask them if they vape or “Juul” (a brand of e-cigarette), the answer is yes, with many seeing vaping as safe or harmless with use driven by social media posts such as Instagram feeds.
So how as scientists do we convey our knowledge to the public to make them aware of risks? Many scientists while being extremely comfortable giving a highly technical presentation to fellow scientists, find it difficult to convey a message to a lay audience. Public communication of science is a skill that not all of us have. However as I outlined in a previous blog there are an increasing range of resources to help. These include the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement and the Universities own Public Engagement with Research Unit (PERu). A really good thing to sign up for is a Lifelab meet the scientist training day. Meanwhile we should celebrate the talents of those in the faculty who have a gift for public engagement such as Dr Lucy Green who won the Establish Researcher Outreach and Engagement Award from the Royal Society of Biology this year. I look forward to seeing many of you at a public engagement event soon!
Research on an issue such as smoking or e-cigarette use also highlights that doing great science is often not enough in itself. What can really matter is the impact our research has outside of academia. One way to achieve this, especially for issues such as vaping where the evidence is changing rapidly, is to engage with policy makers to help them understand the evidence and make informed decisions. A good way to do this is by working with Public Policy|Southampton who have an impact training programme, a tailored impact toolkit and guidance for ways to engage. If you think your research has implications for public policy, get in touch with them.
Meanwhile I will go back to thinking about how we really need a “Dumb ways to die” video to highlight the dangers of vaping to teenagers.
1. Accordini S, Calciano L, Johannessen A, Portas L, Benediktsdottir B, Bertelsen RJ, et al. A three-generation study on the association of tobacco smoking with asthma. Int J Epidemiol. 2018.
2. Marcon A, Pesce G, Calciano L, Bellisario V, Dharmage SC, Garcia-Aymerich J, et al. Trends in smoking initiation in Europe over 40 years: A retrospective cohort study. PLoS One. 2018;13(8):e0201881.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with E-Cigarette Use, or Vaping 2019 [Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarettes/severe-lung-disease.html.
4. Miech R, Johnston L, O’Malley PM, Bachman JG, Patrick ME. Trends in Adolescent Vaping, 2017-2019. N Engl J Med. 2019.
5. Action on Smoking and Health. Fact sheet: Use of e-cigarettes among young people in Great Britain. 2019.