Early-Career Investigator on Fast Track to Research Independence

10/14/2016

Has the emergence of craft breweries and wineries affected large manufacturers’ monopoly of the alcohol market? How could this wider array of consumer options impact alcohol taxes? These are questions that Ce Shang hopes to answer in her new research with funding from the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Shang’s new grant marks the third time in less than ten years that an IHRP investigator has received a K99/R00 “Pathway to Independence Award,” — a prestigious funding mechanism for early investigators. With this award, Dr. Shang plans to expand her skill set and her research portfolio to include spatial analysis and alcohol.

"I have always been interested in alcohol research," said Dr. Shang, "and this grant provided the perfect opportunity to work independently and move towards becoming a tenure-track professor in the future."

The K99/R00 grant’s primary purpose is to identify outstanding junior researchers and to help them receive mentored training so that they can easily transition into an independent, tenure-track position. Only researchers with less than four years of postdoctoral research experience can apply for it.

In 2007, Sandy Slater was among the first round of K99/R00 awardees for her research of the influences of the built environment on adolescent weight. In 2012, Daniel Taber received this award type to apply systems science to his research on childhood obesity policy. Now Shang will use the award to apply her research experience on tax avoidance and illicit trade in tobacco products to the study of alcohol.

Tobacco studies have shown that a complicated tax structure leads to more tax avoidance. In her new research, Dr. Shang intends to find out how tax structure impacts tax avoidance and evasion for alcohol products. She also hopes to provide evidence on the effectiveness of tax structures on raising prices and on reducing excessive drinking and its consequences.

"This is an important issue," she says, "because unlike cigarettes, alcohol tax structures vary a lot across states. There is not yet any empirical evidence on how these different tax structures affect opportunities for tax avoidance across different products and different brands. We don't have guidelines yet for how to impose the most effective tax structures."

The first two years of the grant — the K9900 phase — are to be spent in training; Dr. Shang will take classes in urban planning to learn spatial analysis and geographic information systems (GIS). She will also review the scientific literature on excessive alcohol use and research alcohol tax structures, avoidance, and evasion. Dr. Shang will work under the guidance of three mentors  — Drs. Jamie Chriqui, Frank Chaloupka, and Slater — plus several consultants.

After two years of skill development, Shang will transition into the R00 phase of the grant, in which she enters the job market for a tenure-track faculty position and applies for funding for her pilot research. Her investigation will examine the effects of the emergence craft breweries and micro-wineries on the alcohol market, which is dominated by multinational, corporate manufacturers.

"If the presence of increasing numbers of smaller, independent manufacturers reduces the monopoly of large manufacturers, there will likely be a wider range of prices, which may create more incentives for consumers to engage in tax avoidance and evasion," says Dr. Shang.

Dr. Shang first became interested in this research because of a project led by one of her mentors, Frank Chaloupka. Dr. Chaloupka's Bridging the Gap project had a component that used GIS to measure tax avoidance and evasion incentives for tobacco. Dr. Shang realized she could apply this type of analysis using a similar method to study alcohol tax avoidance and evasion.

While Dr. Shang was planning her grant application, an important study was released by the Nobel Prize–winning economist Angus Deaton and his coauthorhis wife, Anne Case . Their study found that mortality attributable to excessive alcohol use was rising among Caucasian Americans. This finding propelled Dr. Shang to pursue her research on the consequences of alcohol use.

She will use data from the Monitoring the Future study, the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Systems, and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to study the alcohol use of youth and adults of all races in the US with a particular focus on vulnerable populations. Additionally, she will conduct secondary analyses of youth drinking behavior and aggregated-level tax and alcohol use data from Europe. Dr. Shang expects the data will cover years between 2003 1991 through 2015.

Dr. Shang said she is excited to study the impacts of craft breweries and wineries. "They are a booming trend, but we don't know yet how this trend will impact price, price range, drinking behavior, and consequences," she said.

This news release was written by Alison Goldstein, MPH, senior research specialist and director of communications for the Health Policy Center at UIC’s Institute for Health Research and Policy.