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Meet the Stempel College professor working on solutions to the tobacco epidemic among youth

Photo of Dr. Wasim Maziak of Stempel College

Dr. Wasim Maziak

Dr. Wasim Maziak, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Stempel College, has dedicated his career to researching novel tobacco products and ways to respond to them. His efforts over the years have landed him prestigious fellowships, grants and awards. Last week, Dr. Maziak was awarded the Faculty Award for Excellence in Research & Creative Activities by Florida International University’s Faculty Senate.

Born in Syria, Dr. Maziak was a respiratory doctor who developed a passion for research focused on smoking and tobacco use in his home country. “When you’re in a developing country, you cannot escape smoking—it’s just everywhere,” he said. “If you’re not a smoker, your life can be miserable because you are exposed to cigarette smoke in the workplace, public places, and while using public transportation. Without policy and regulations to limit smoking, the health burden from smoking to smokers and nonsmokers is second to no other risk factor.”

Dr. Maziak’s work on smoking and respiratory health helped him get notable fellowship opportunities, including one with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany. During his two-year stint as a Humboldt fellow, Dr. Maziak learned that the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was interested in funding research centers in developing countries. “I always wanted to do the work that I loved in my country,” said Dr. Maziak. “This was just a perfect opportunity to do so, so I sent emails to scholars in the United States to collaborate with me. Soon I got connected with Kenneth Ward of the University of Memphis and Thomas Eissenberg from Virginia Commonwealth University. We wrote the application and won the grant.”

The grant helped Dr. Maziak establish the Syrian Center for Tobacco Studies, a pioneer research and capacity-building institution in the Middle East. He worked there until 2006, when he was forced to flee Syria due to safety concerns brought on by his collaboration with U.S. institutions, given the tense relations between the U.S. and Syria during the Iraq war. “I had some friends in high places telling me that I needed to go,” he said. “I wrote to my collaborators and told them that I needed their help.” As a result, Dr. Maziak’s research collaborators supported him in getting an H-1B visa that allowed him to relocate with his family and continue his work in the United States.

Dr. Maziak’s initial focus on hookah smoking was due to how widespread of a problem it was in the Middle East and how little we knew about its addictive and harmful properties at the time. “When I moved to the United States, all of a sudden, the hookah epidemic that I was studying in my home country became a global phenomenon,” he said. “I was one of the very few specialists who knew anything about this topic, so this helped establish my career here.”

But tobacco use among young people in the U.S. keeps changing, with e-cigarettes now being front and center. “My work on the hookah and the similarities it enjoys with e-cigarettes, as potential harm reduced products, positioned me well to start focusing on e-cigarettes,” he adds.

Recently, Dr. Maziak has received several awards from NIH to study e-cigarettes, helping build FIU as a national hub for regulatory and policy research related to e-cigarette use. In partnership with the University of Miami, Dr. Maziak’s team recently received a $2.6 million grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) to develop and test health warning labels for e-cigarettes. Additionally, a pending award from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and NIDA totaling $1.25 million will allow Dr. Maziak’s team to test nicotine reduction strategies to reduce the addiction and health effects of e-cigarettes. This project will be done in collaboration with the American University of Beirut aerosol lab, using cutting-edge robotic technology to produce e-cigarettes aerosols and test them for toxic constituents. Finally, Dr. Maziak received a sub-award on a recent NIH grant to the University of Pennsylvania (PI Andy Tan) to develop and test social media anti-vaping messages to reduce e-cigarette use among sexual and gender minority teens. Most of this work under these awards will be done at Dr. Maziak’s Clinical Research Lab for Tobacco Smoking, a state-of-the-art facility that he hopes to expand to accommodate his increasing research portfolio.

As for his end goal, Dr. Maziak shares that ending smoking worldwide in his lifetime isn’t a realistic one—although it would be nice.

“Remember, it took us about a century to come to where we are today on the risks of smoking and policy solutions to reduce its burden. Back then, smoking was seen as chic and healthy – even physicians smoked,” he said. “My aim is to create evidence to help young people be aware of risks associated with the use of novel tobacco products and guide regulatory bodies to consider effective ways to reduce tobacco use morbidity and mortality.”

Stempel College’s School of Public Health is ranked 44th among public universities by U.S. News & World Report.  To learn more about a degree in Epidemiology, go here