The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded more than $400,000 in grant money to develop underwear that detects cigarette smoke.

To counter epidemic tobacco use in America, NIH intends to construct a wearable sensor system made up of a breathing sensor installed into conventional underwear, which would allow researchers to better follow subjects in further researcher studies.

The University of Alabama received two grants totaling $402,721 for the system, a "very early prototype" that fits the user like a vest. A three-year project that began in 2010, the Personal Automatic Cigarette Tracker would record the frequency of user smoking in addition to the depth of smoke inhalation, with real-time information helping to inform strategies for smoking cessation programs.

"The modern methods of monitoring smoking, primarily you rely on self-report," Dr. Edward Sazonov, an associate professor at the University of Alabama, told media. "There are few devices which actually allow a more computerized health report."

Leading the research project, Sazonov has created a device with two wearable sensors, including a small bracelet monitoring the user's hand-to-mouth motion as well as a sensor on the midsection that monitors breathing.

"We are trying to eliminate the need for self-report from people about how much they smoke, when they smoke, how many puffs they take from the cigarette," he said. "The combination of these two sensors, hopefully, will allow us to monitor cigarette smoking without asking people when and how much they smoke."

With multiple straps and wires, the system is not the most user-friendly, Sazonov acknowledged. "Right now we're actually in the process of integrating this whole system just so it's in an elastic band, pretty much like a heart rate monitor."

The university received $187,368 in 2010 for the project, which was followed by another $215,353 in 2011. Thus far, the money has paid for two studies, the first of which successfully developed a monitor that distinguished between cigarette smoking and other activities, such as eating. The second study involved subjects wearing the system for a day.

"The results can be used in support of cessation because potentially in the future we should be able to detect smoking in real time," Sazonov said, adding that he would apply for additional grant money once the funds ran out in August.

To some, the research study might seem a desperate act by a government facing a public health problem that costs the U.S. $96 billion in direct medical costs, with a further $97 billion in lost productivity — making the habit nearly as costly as obesity. Aside from other federal departments, the Department of Defense spends approximately $564 million per year on medical costs associated with tobacco use.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the U.S., with 443,000 people dying prematurely per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Presently, 46.6 million American adults smoke cigarettes, with 88 million others exposed to secondhand smoke — a number that includes more than half of all children between ages 3 and 11. From secondhand smoke alone, some 3,000 Americans die annually of lung cancer and 46,000 of heart disease, while 150,000 to 300,000 babies develop lower respiratory tract infections.

See also: "Electronic Cigarettes May Help Smokers Quit: Two E-Cig Trials To Report Results This Year."