The UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention has awarded Sarah Kowitt, PhD, MPH, and Leah Ranney, PhD, MA, a planning grant of $5,000 for their research project on cannabis warning labels. Drs. Kowitt and Ranney’s study is the sole recipient of the 2022 HPDP planning grant program, which is designed to assist UNC faculty in carrying out pilot projects related to health promotion/disease prevention research. This year’s awardee project, “Strengthening Cannabis Warnings,” will be the first of its kind in cannabis prevention research, an emerging field of study.
“Our previous research has shown that tobacco warning labels, especially those that are large and include graphic images, can effectively increase health knowledge among people who use tobacco,” Dr. Kowitt said. “This grant will really help us understand the state of cannabis warning labels in the United States and how they can be improved.”
Following tobacco and alcohol, cannabis is the third most commonly used drug in the United States, and its popularity is rising as more and more states legalize recreational cannabis use. While there are some medical benefits of cannabis use, such as nausea and chronic pain relief, there are also potential negative consequences, including impaired brain development, respiratory problems, and an increased risk of motor vehicle crashes. However, despite the potential negative effects, many U.S. adults consider cannabis use a low-risk activity.
Every state that allows recreational cannabis use requires the products to include warning labels on the packaging, but the labels vary by state. Given their ability to inform users of potential risks, warning labels can play a key role in preventing the negative effects of cannabis use. However, little research exists on the effectiveness of current warning labels.
In their research project, Drs. Kowitt and Ranney plan to add to the literature on cannabis warning labels and provide practical, evidence-based suggestions for improving warning labels through a three-pronged research strategy. They will begin by creating a library of current warning labels used on various types of cannabis products across the United States. They will then have experts in the field review the library of warning labels. The expert panel will give input on the effectiveness of current labels and make suggestions for improved warnings. Using the experts’ feedback, a design team will create mock-ups of improved cannabis warning labels.
Drs. Kowitt and Ranney will then host focus groups comprised with recreational cannabis users. In these focus groups, the participants will discuss their current perceptions of the risks of cannabis use and the effectiveness of cannabis warning labels. The participants will view a selection of current cannabis warning labels and the improved mock-ups, and they will discuss how they think warning labels could be improved.
“With the cannabis market expected to grow exponentially in the next decade, we are eager to experimentally test and apply lessons-learned from our tobacco warning research to cannabis products,” Dr. Ranney said. “We are thrilled to be the recipient of the HPDP planning grant which will allow us to embark on this new and important research.”
With the help of this funding, Drs. Kowitt and Ranney aim to complete the project by June 2023. They plan on publishing their findings as well as using the results as evidence to pursue extramural research funding.
View a list of previous planning grant awardees and learn more about the HPDP planning grant.
Dr. Sarah Kowitt, PhD, MPH is an assistant professor in the department of family medicine in the UNC School of Medicine. Her primary research interests are substance use prevention in youth and young adults.
Dr. Leah Ranney, PhD, MA is an associate research professor in the department of family medicine in the UNC School of Medicine as well as the director of the UNC Tobacco Prevention and Evaluation Program (TPEP). She primarily conducts tobacco prevention and regulatory science research.