Published September 14, 2021
It was June 1961 when an 8-year-old Gary Giovino stepped onto UB’s campus for the first time. He was a summer day camp participant, learning to speak a little French, swim his first full lap of a pool, and craft colorful boondoggles. (He would be named an “outstanding camper” at the conclusion of it, an achievement documented in the pages of the Aug. 12, 1961, edition of the Buffalo Courier-Express, of which he still has a copy.)
Giovino fondly recalled those first moments of discovery at UB in the spring, when he gave the alumni welcome for the School of Public Health and Health Professions’ commencement ceremony.
“Little did I ever think I would have, some 60 years later, the privilege of addressing the 2021 graduating class of our School of Public Health and Health Professions,” Giovino, SUNY Distinguished Professor in SPHHP’s Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, told the graduates.
Capping off a research career that spanned more than four decades and took him from Buffalo to Rochester to Atlanta and back to Buffalo, Giovino is retiring from university service. He does, however, still plan to teach an occasional favorite course and give guest lectures.
Giovino contributed numerous important studies on nicotine and tobacco use over the course of his career, becoming known as one of the world’s foremost scholars on the epidemiology of tobacco use and dependence. Giovino and colleagues’ research factored heavily into the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s work in regulating cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products in the 1990s.
“Gary has been a remarkable leader in our school. Not only has he served as chair of the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, he most recently served as associate dean for faculty affairs,” says Jean Wactawski-Wende, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions and SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health.
“He has been so very thoughtful in both of those roles,” she adds. “I have always appreciated his willingness to step up whenever needed. Although he is stepping down from taking on any further administrative roles, I look forward to seeing his productivity in his renewed focus on scholarship and teaching in his ‘retirement.’”
Giovino received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Notre Dame. He earned his master’s in natural sciences from UB, as well as his PhD in epidemiology.
As a doctoral candidate in the mid-1970s, Giovino ran stop-smoking clinics at what is now Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, where he also taught physicians how to help their patients quit smoking.
Giovino’s decision to research tobacco use was personal: His mother had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer — she took up smoking in the late 1920s, shortly after tobacco companies began marketing to women — and he smoked cigarettes.
“I was pretty sure that smoking was dangerous, but I really wanted to read the actual scientific studies that contributed to that conclusion, just in case I might find some problems with them, to justify my continuing to smoke,” Giovino says.
He decided to quit after reading up on the scientific literature on smoking, and hearing two lectures given by L. Saxon Graham, who taught at UB and was considered among the world’s most important cancer epidemiologists.
In his first job, at the University of Rochester, Giovino managed a study of one of the first telephone quit lines. After a few years, he was offered a position in Atlanta with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office on Smoking and Health, eventually serving as chief of the epidemiology branch. While there, he advised the FDA in its regulation of tobacco products in the 1990s. Of particular focus was how tobacco companies were marketing their products to children.
Giovino left the CDC in 1999, returning to Western New York with his wife, Sue, to help care for her aging parents. He worked at Roswell Park before joining UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions in 2006.
He has also facilitated development of the Global Tobacco Surveillance System, with particular focus on the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, and more recently on the Global Youth Tobacco Survey. In addition to his surveillance work, Giovino has begun to conduct research on suboptimal nutrition as a risk factor for nicotine addiction. Depending on the results of his studies, he may eventually incorporate the use of lifestyle factors such as exercise and nutrition into clinical and community-based smoking cessation programs.
“Gary has been long recognized as a leader in tobacco epidemiology and the efforts to reduce tobacco use,” says Lynn Kozlowski, professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, former SPHHP dean, and one of Giovino’s longtime colleagues. “Many of the other leaders in the field have worked with Gary and have felt privileged to do so. I feel fortunate to have worked with him. His contributions to his department and school have also been critical and at the meticulous, high standard that he is admired for in his scholarship.”
One of Giovino’s first major discoveries, with colleagues, was the finding in 1987 that menthol cigarette smoking was more common among African Americans compared to white cigarette smokers, and that menthol cigarettes were more likely to be advertised in predominately Black magazines, compared to magazines targeted to white smokers. Tobacco companies have used menthol and other flavorings to make their products more palatable.
Giovino was senior author on a 2008 study documenting that young people were more likely to smoke cigarettes with flavorings other than menthol. The state attorneys general used this information in their negotiations with tobacco companies, who agreed to stop using characterizing flavors (other than menthol) in cigarettes.
And, in 2012, Giovino was senior author on a major paper published in The Lancet reporting on the troubling extent of tobacco use among men and young women in low- and middle-income countries throughout the world. The study garnered worldwide media coverage, including in The New York Times, CNN and NPR, among many other outlets.
For all his work at the federal and scholarly levels, Giovino remains especially proud of what he and a dedicated group of UB community members were able to achieve here at UB in leading the smoke free campus project. “Compliance is not 100%, but the air outside on campus is considerably better than prior to our committee’s efforts,” he says.
Giovino is looking forward to the discoveries that lay ahead in retirement, whatever those may be. What is certain is that UB will never be far away. Neither will that outstanding camper newspaper clipping.