• Students and faculty members working on the smoking cessation study for Williamson County include (back row) Nick Parker, ...
    Students and faculty members working on the smoking cessation study for Williamson County include (back row) Nick Parker, Wes Rivers and Eric Franco and (front row) Tristine Baccam, Mary Young and Edward Kain

Health care costs are a large part of the state budget in Texas, and much of this is related to people who smoke.

Despite well-documented research that smoking is dangerous, 15 percent of the population continues to smoke. Students and faculty members from the Departments of Economics and Sociology at Southwestern are conducting research on the reasoning behind this, particularly in Williamson County.

With the help of grant money Southwestern received from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop collaborative programs among faculty members, the departments have joined with the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD) to explore the effectiveness of tobacco cessation strategies available to employers in Williamson County.

“The prevalence of smoking has not decreased to levels one would expect with the increased awareness of its dangers,” says senior economics major Eric Franco. “This is one of the greatest public policy dilemmas facing the government right now.”

Federal law to be enacted in 2010 will require parity in coverage for mental health, including substance abuse disorders. More people may take advantage of tobacco cessation programs as cost declines, therefore increasing the need for an understanding of which programs are most effective.

To date, the students and faculty members working on the project have examined past research conducted by other organizations and developed a survey for target groups. Working in partnership with WCCHD, they have distributed their survey to 2,000 people and plan to survey another 1,600 more. The survey asks questions about tobacco use, knowledge of tobacco-related health problems, and the awareness, use and efficacy of tobacco cessation programs.

The Health District hopes to use the results of the survey to create policy recommendations about cost-effective nicotine cessation programs for the county’s health plan.

This is the fourth research project Economics Professor Mary Young has done for WCCHD since 2001. “The county does not have the resources to conduct extensive research on their own, so the research we can offer them is very important,” Young says.  She adds that this is the largest data collection project/survey that Southwestern has done in the past 20 years.

The project has given students the chance to work on research with national implications and gain some experience that may transfer into a career setting. “It really pertains to what I will be doing in the future,” says Franco, who plans to pursue a career in consulting, which will involve research.

Senior economics major Wes Rivers says it has been very rewarding to work with Young on this project.

“Professor Young has so much experience in this field,” he says. “It has allowed me to see what goes into real-life research.” Rivers plans to attend graduate school and is interested in pursuing a career in public policy.

The interdisciplinary study also has given students from different majors the ropportunity to work together.

“It has been interesting to work with students outside of the Sociology Department,” says senior sociology major Tristine Baccam. “It has opened my eyes to different perspectives and to the ways that they work in the major.”

Ed Kain, professor of sociology, even integrated the study into his Research Methods course. As part of their lab for the class, students examined and critiqued the survey during the production phase.

The students are now inputting and analyzing the data they have collected for any patterns. They hope to present their findings at several state and national meetings in 2009. Young says initial results indicate that tobacco use is strongly predicted by the level of knowledge about adverse health effects. Also, respondents were less likely to use tobacco when questioned about their tobacco use by a health care provider.




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