Penn professor Andy Tan has launched a new research lab within the Annenberg School for Communication to study the effects of marketing and mass communication on the health of marginalized populations.
The Health Communications and Equity Lab aims to design "culturally responsive communication interventions to advance the health and well-being" of diverse populations. Tan is aided by a team of Ph.D. students, Mary E. Andrews and David S. Cordero, and research manager Elaine Hanby, as well as other academics and healthcare providers.
The lab is first focusing on Project RESIST, a study on tobacco marketing in the LGBTQ+ community. The project will examine the effectiveness of different anti-smoking messages toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual women.
Tan said he is using an "inoculation" method to increase LGB women’s resilience toward tobacco marketing by first exposing LGB women to anti-tobacco marketing. The research team will then examine the effects on how exposure to the knowledge that these women are being targeted by tobacco companies will affect the women’s resistance toward this marketing.
Engagement with community leaders, Tan said, is fundamental in creating interventions that are culturally appropriate and respond to the needs of affected groups. He said the ultimate goal of the project is to develop interventions that will reduce the health disparities among these women.
The need for this project arose out of the finding that young LGB women are targeted much more aggressively by the tobacco industry than the general population. Tan said that this targeting takes place through pride festival sponsorships and promotions at LGBTQ+ bars and nightclubs, as well as targeted imagery in advertisements.
“So much of it is not obvious or visible if you’re not part of the community. The [tobacco] industry uses very sophisticated segmentation methods to make sure that their advertising messages get to the LGBTQ population,” Tan said.
Third-year Ph.D. student Mary E. Andrews said that messages about the harmful effects of smoking aim to change overall health habits but don't address the health inequity faced by specific groups such as LGB women.
"This lab focuses on how to create health messaging that really works for the people who need it,” Andrews said.
Andrews added that her research interests involve the effects of racial differences in LGB women and the role of race in how anti-smoking messages is perceived.
Tobacco messaging has always involved race, Andrews said. She cited the 1970s and 1980s, when tobacco companies pushed menthol cigarettes onto Black communities, the health effects of which are seen to this day.
As e-cigarettes and vaping products like Juul become more popular among LGBTQ+ youth, these vulnerable groups are more likely to transition to combustible tobacco later in life, Tan said.
By understanding the underlying targeting, such as from flavored e-cigarettes, which target young people, the project team hopes to reduce the appeal of vaping devices as well as tobacco among these populations.
Over the long-term, the team aims to work with hospitals, health centers, and other community organizations that serve LGB women in order to implement effective anti-tobacco messaging.
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