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Formative Research and Needs Assessments

Formative research is conducted before a program begins in order to answer important questions about key issues, such as the needs and values of the target population. Formative research is important when developing tobacco prevention and control programs because it can help to guide strategies for reaching at-risk populations.

A needs assessment, which is required of not-for-profit hospitals by law, is a formative research activity that can identify the priorities of community members regarding a particular issue. They are also important tools for identifying available community resources, gaps in resources, and barriers to accessing those resources. The University of Kansas' Community Tool Box offers a comprehensive overview of needs assessments. The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) has also developed a partnership building and planning tool for community health programming.

Conducting a needs assessment is an important first step in developing a tobacco control and prevention program because it can increase understanding about how tobacco is used in the community and how and where to target limited resources. Needs assessments can also highlight cultural considerations for tobacco cessation and prevention programs — such as the difference between commercial and traditional uses of tobacco in tribal communities, strategies that can best reach limited English proficient populations, and any special ties to the tobacco industry in the community (see Cultural Ties to Tobacco in Implementation Challenges).

Needs assessments can help to answer the following questions, among many others:

  • How many people in the community are using tobacco?
  • Who is using tobacco in the community? Are there any specific populations that have a disproportionately high percentage of use?
  • What kind of tobacco is being used in the community? (For example, smokeless, cigarettes, e-cigarettes)
  • If youth are using tobacco, how are they accessing it?
  • What organizations are focusing on tobacco prevention and cessation in the community and may be potential partners?
  • What local tobacco- or smoke-free policies are in place?
  • Are there any national or state data sources on tobacco in the community?