2014 Grant Recipients Last updated: 31 Jul, 2015

VicHealth Innovation Research Grants provide an opportunity for research teams to trial an innovative idea, research a new concept or methodology, or to develop better supporting evidence relevant to the theory, policy and practice of health promotion.

The scheme funds researchers to undertake a two-year research project addressing specific research priorities related to the VicHealth Action Agenda for Health Promotion.

A refreshed Innovation Research Grant round opened in November 2014, trialling a new two-stage application process. The grants proved to be highly competitive, with 125 expressions of interest received in stage one. 

Thirteen applications progressed to an assessment stage by two external reviewers, informing the final decision of an assessment panel comprising VicHealth and external expertise. The panel selected three successful projects to be funded for two years commencing April 2015. Innovation Research Grants will be offered annually. The next round is due to open in August/September 2015.

Congratulations to our new innovation research projects

Dr Adrian Cameron

Creating supermarket food environments that encourage healthy eating

Dr Adrian Cameron & Dr Gary Sacks, Deakin University

This project will examine the impact of changes to within-store supermarket marketing and promotion strategies on the healthiness of food purchased. These supermarket-based interventions will include a financial evaluation to enable assessment of the impact on the retailer and to ensure that results are highly relevant to other settings. The project builds on strong existing relationships between retail and local government partners and senior researchers from the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University.

Unhealthy diets and excess body weight are the two risk factors contributing most to the burden of disease in Australia. While it is well recognised that unhealthy food environments have been the prevailing driver of population weight gain over the last three decades, interventions to improve the healthiness of food environments have not been widely implemented. A key reason for the lack of public health progress in this area is the primacy of economic rather than health-related drivers in the food system. Accordingly, in making the case for changes to food environments, economic evaluations of the impact of interventions on various stakeholders are desperately needed. Unfortunately, opportunities to rigorously test and establish the effectiveness and economic feasibility of environmental interventions in the real world are rare.

Supermarkets are the location of most food purchases in Australia and therefore a potentially potent intervention site. Sustained change in the supermarket environment is nevertheless unlikely without a clear demonstration that interventions successfully improve the healthiness of consumer purchases and do not adversely impact the profits of the retailer. Within-store marketing techniques are a key driver of purchasing decisions. Interventions targeting them are likely to be scalable and sustainable, however little to no high-quality evidence exists for their effectiveness, with no economic evaluations to demonstrate their feasibility. Retail and local government partners have been working with Deakin University researchers over the past year to design a series of supermarket health promotion interventions to address the evidence gap in this area. 

By conducting proof-of-principle trials, we will be able to assess the effect of within-store changes to marketing and promotion on customer purchasing behaviour, and the financial effect on the retailer. This evidence can then be used to help improve the food environment of this and other communities throughout Victoria and elsewhere. By targeting the promotion of both healthy and unhealthy foods, we are addressing the imperative to eat more healthy foods as well as to eat less unhealthy foods. The interventions to be tested were chosen based on them being scalable, sustainable, and feasible for retailers.  Supermarket-based research such as this has the potential for population wide impact on eating behaviours.

Professor Jayashri Kulkarni

Vaporising smoking-related harms in people with severe and persistent mental illness: A study of the acceptability of vaporised nicotine products for smoking cessation or long term substitutes

Professor Jayashri Kulkarni, Monash University

A strong case has been made that smokers with mental health conditions are a tobacco-disparity group and more attention and resources should be directed to this priority population. People with severe and persistent mental illness represent some of the most disadvantaged members of Australian society. Data from Victoria indicates that people with severe and persistent mental illness spend approximately 40% of their disposable income on tobacco, hence tobacco smoking contributes substantially to the economic disadvantage experienced by this population. Mortality rates in people with severe and persistent mental illness are much greater than in the general population, resulting in a 15–20 year reduction in life expectancy. Of great concern is the fact that the life expectancy gap between people with severe and persistent mental illness and the general Australian population is widening. Chronic physical disorders such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cancer are the main cause of the life expectancy gap and account for 10 times the number of deaths from suicide in this population, yet receive far less attention. Smoking is one of the main modifiable risk factors for this excess mortality.

There is currently little published data available on potential tobacco harm reduction interventions for people with severe and persistent mental illness. To date, most tobacco harm reduction advice for this population has focussed on smoking reduction. Research suggests that smoking reduction, particularly when combined with an alternative source of nicotine, may increase the likelihood of complete cessation among general population smokers, however this has not been tested among smokers with severe and persistent mental illness. There is little evidence that reduced smoking as a long-term harm reduction strategy translates into substantial health gains. Complete substitution of cigarettes with clean nicotine products could lead to much greater health gains than sustained smoking at lower levels. However, apart from one pilot study among 14 Italian smokers with schizophrenia, there is little published research on this approach to harm reduction in among smokers with SPMI. Therefore, the proposed research will contribute substantial new knowledge about this approach in the Australian population.

Specifically, it will contribute information on:

  • Relative interest in long-term substitution with Vaporised Nicotine Products (VNP) versus standard care (nicotine patches for short term use + cessation counselling)
  • Relative attractiveness of a range of VNP and nicotine patches
  • Uptake and duration of use of these products
  • Impact on cigarette intake, cigarette cravings, quitting self-efficacy, general health and well-being
  • Safety and side effects of use
This proposed project is significant as it will provide important new data on an innovative new approach to reducing smoking related harms among a priority population that have not benefited from existing tobacco control approaches that have reduced smoking prevalence in the general population. Victorians with SPMI, such as schizophrenia and other psychoses, are much more likely to smoke than the general Victorian population without severe and persistent mental illness (62% vs 16%). Despite a large decline in smoking among the general adult Australian population between 1998 (22.7%) and 2010 (15.9%), smoking prevalence among Australian adults with a psychotic disorder (66%) did not change over the same time period. The failure to see any decline in smoking prevalence among Australians with severe and persistent mental illness is consistent with quitting being much more difficult, or unachievable for most in this population under the current mix of public health and cessation strategies.

The expected outcomes from this research include valuable data to guide the development of a tobacco harm reduction intervention for smokers with severe and persistent mental illness and a large competitive grant application to conduct a full-powered clinical trial of the intervention. The results will have immediate relevance for public health policy if it is found that access to novel Vaporised Nicotine products could benefit this priority population to reduce their smoking related harms. This includes developing appropriate advice to smokers with severe and persistent mental illness about use of VNP and also may support relaxing current restrictions on some forms of VNP to allow this population to access it.

Dr Megan Lim

A mobile phone delivered intervention for reducing alcohol consumption

Dr Megan Lim, Burnet Institute

Risky (binge) drinking by young people is a significant public health issue in Australia; two-thirds (67%)of young Victorians aged 16-29 report drinking at levels that put them at risk of injury from a single drinking occasion. These drinking patterns make a significant contribution to current social, economic, and health problems. Very few behavioural interventions have been proven to be effective in changing alcohol consumption. One exception is brief screening and tailored feedback interventions which encourage people to reflect on their drinking practices.

Almost all Victorians own a mobile phone and among young people, penetration of smartphones (phones with computerised functions and internet connectivity) is almost complete. Mobile phones have proven effective in delivering health promotion interventions. Research has also demonstrated the ability of mobile SMS-delivered health promotion to engage with young people and the impact of these interventions on a range of health behaviours. The current proposal takes a style of alcohol intervention proven to have a significant impact on young people's drinking and moves it into the mobile realm, the realm in which young people operate for most of their daily lives.

This project is highly innovative, but is based on sound evidence. The project will take a strong underpinning in brief interventions, ecological momentary assessment, social marketing theory, health promotion and behaviour change theory, and participatory development into the mobile realm. This combination of novel technology and sound theory means that the intervention is highly likely to be effective in changing alcohol consumption behaviours. The mobile delivery means that the intervention is scalable, sustainable, and cost-effective.

Click here to read about the pilot study.