Research-based comic book at UK helps readers understand and fight use of electronic cigarettes by teens and young adults

Top of comic book cover, showing students as puppets of an electronic cigarette; story title is “The Villainous Vape”

By Alicia Gregory

University of Kentucky
A team at the University of Kentucky has published a research-based comic book to fight use of electronic cigarettes by young adults.

“In the world that we live in right now, there is a lot of science misinformation, and a lot of that is just a communication flaw. The science is correct. The ideas are correct. The intent is correct. The messaging is not,” said Joel Thompson, Ph.D., research development director for UK’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science, which fostered the project.

In August 2019, the CCTS launched its Science Communication Challenge, inviting investigators to develop and pitch a comic-book concept to tell the story of their research. That gave Melinda Ickes an idea.

“I thought, I really don’t know if this is a good fit for me, but hey, why not?” said Ickes, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the UK College of Education‘s Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion. She is also faculty associate and co-director of the Tobacco Policy Research Program of the College of Nursing BREATHE (Bridging Research Efforts and Advocacy Toward Healthy Environments) project, that the was the basis for her winning idea.
The research study she chose to pitch, titled “Prevalence and reasons for Juul use among college students,” was published in the American Journal of College Health in 2019. “We really wanted to understand why students were using and what were the risk factors to initiate use and continue use of e-cigarettes.” She hoped to address rampant misinformation among young people about e-cigarette use.

Bryan Sanders, who does a variety of graphic design projects for the CCTS Participant Recruitment Services unit, became the main artist on the project. His colleague Ashley Hall said, “I knew if anyone could take this scientific jargon, distill it down and turn it into something that was easier to understand, it was certainly him.”

Sanders is a comic artist and filmmaker on the side. In the past eight years, he’s created 20 comic books, with a total run of 5,000 copies. He has been a frequent participant in the Lexington Comic & Toy Con, to be held Sept. 9-12, and will be in Booth 1038 with copies of the comic book.

“If one person reads this book, puts down the comic and then puts down their e-cigarette, that’s a plus-one in my book.”

Ickes says she hopes the comic will promote non-judgmental discussion of e-cigarette use across all ages, and she wants to develop curriculum and programming around the comic book. “Developing this comic really helped me see how we can talk about research in a different way, how we can engage young people. If we keep pushing the envelope, as the CCTS is helping us do, we’re going to reach more people across Kentucky and even beyond.”

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