Overton Blog

Overton in research: understanding tobacco policy

New research from scholars at the Keck School of Medicine within the University of Southern California uses the Overton data to explore how tobacco related social media research is used to inform policy decisions on smoking in the US.

Here we’ll explore the paper and how the Overton data helped them draw their conclusions.

What is the paper about?

TITLE: Examining Tobacco-Related Social Media Research in Government Policy Documents: Systematic Review 

AUTHORS: Trista A. Beard, Scott I. Donaldson, Jennifer B. Unger, and Jon-Patrick Allem 

In this paper, Beard et al examine to what extent policymakers in the US draw on social media research to understand attitudes towards smoking, as well as the behaviour of tobacco companies. They also show how this research is used and what type of policy it informs. As researchers in a medical school, they seek to understand the types of evidence used by policymakers and whether there are any missing links that could be exploited to reduce smoking rates.

Previous research has used data from social media platforms to show how tobacco companies market their products, as well as how users (specifically young people) consume tobacco. This has helped inform our understanding of the industry’s methods and how they influence people’s attitudes and behaviours around smoking. 

The research team wanted to learn how the insights gleaned from these platforms over the last decade were being used to inform real-world decision making. They found that this type of research is actively used by policymakers in documents that outline public health concerns, guide industry practices, and make recommendations to stakeholders. Nearly half of the examined policy documents described social media content as an important data source for public health research.

The research was referenced most in policy relating to tobacco industry marketing practices and reports looking at specific issues like youth e-cigarette use. Numerous documents cited a concern over young people’s exposure to tobacco content on social media – not only because youth exposure has been found to increase susceptibility but also because tobacco companies use covert advertising (e.g., influencers) on social media platforms. 

Many policy documents also reference this research to illustrate the potential of social media platforms as a data source for understanding tobacco-related attitudes and behaviours. The government agencies that cited this type of research most often included the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Researchers also reflected on the gaps in policy. They found little reference to research which explored how social media could be used as a tool for the prevention of smoking. They suggest that this may be due to “government contracts and grants prioritising observational research examining tobacco industry marketing, over developing prevention programs and interventions”. They emphasised the need for policymakers to explore this area more, as it could be an effective tool to reduce smoking and improve public health outcomes, especially among young people.   

How did they use the Overton data?

The team searched for (peer reviewed) tobacco-related social media studies published between 2004 and 2022 using databases such as Web of Science and PubMed.

They then searched for the DOI of each identified article in the Overton database to find any policy documents citing the research. They also undertook a secondary, manual search of any governmental agency websites that require users to create an account, as the Overton platform excludes these. 

The study's inclusion criteria specified that the policy documents must be tobacco-related, written in English, cite social media research, and be published by a governmental office or agency.

They then coded these policy documents for content themes, agency type, document type and subsequent citations, to understand exactly how this research was being used. 

The researchers used Overton to search for catalogued policy documents published worldwide as “there is no other database out there providing this service”.

Get access to the paper here!

See a full list of papers using Overton data in our Zotero library.

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What is Overton

We help universities, think tanks and publishers understand the reach and influence of their research.

The Overton platform contains is the world’s largest searchable policy database, with over 9 million documents from 31k organisations.

We track everything from white papers to think tank policy briefs to national clinical guidelines, and automatically find the references to scholarly research, academics and other outputs.