If you’re a smoker, you probably have heard it all before: Smoking causes cancer; it’s bad for your lungs and your health; and you should quit now before it’s too late. And on and on it goes.
But if you’re a member of the GLBT community who just happens to smoke, you may want to pause and catch your breath before taking another puff.
Smoking in the GLBT community is estimated to be 40 to 200 percent higher than the general population.
People who identify as GLBT “show some of the highest smoking prevalence rates of all disproportionably affected populations,” according to the National GLBT Tobacco Control Network.
Loretta Worthington, Director of the local Rainbow Health Initiative, says, “The tobacco industry has been targeting the GLBT community for years, and there are definitely some documents that show that the tobacco industry targets not only our community, but other communities like people of color and youth. There is a project called Project SCUM (sub culture urban marketing) that was one of the tobacco industry’s marketing tactics for gay men in the Castro district in San Francisco.”
As Worthington explains, this targeting has gone from subtle to overt and direct marketing, and the switch apparently has paid off. Unlike other oppressed communities, which typically have viewed such targeting by alcohol and tobacco companies with anger, the GLBT community has lacked a similarly appropriate response.
Worthington notes, “A long time ago, most corporate companies would not target the GLBT community, because they didn’t want to be seen as GLBT-friendly—it was bad for business. Then, when they got over that, when the tobacco and alcohol industry started targeting the GLBT community, the GLBT community, not used to having ads targeted at us, saw them as a friend of the community, because they were marketing to us, and seeing us a valid community.”
That support can be seen in the number of current GLBT smokers, and the number of GLBT youth taking up the practice. A recent study of youth found that 45 percent of females and 35 percent of males who reported same-sex attraction or behavior smoked. This compared to other youths, who smoked at a rate of 29 percent.
“Part of the problem is, because there is a high rate of smoking in our community, there are a high number of folks that are role models for the youth of today that are smoking. So, if GLBT youth are looking for role models, then oftentimes, they will have role models that go to bars and that smoke,” Worthington states.
Apart from role models, images in tobacco ads also play a part in appealing to youth and the GLBT community.
Previous subtle marketing, which may have depicted a woman in the background with a man in the foreground, would place an additional male in the ad, so the object of the main man’s desire was ambiguous.
Current ads, however, make blatant and direct appeals to the GLBT community, sometimes playing on fears and issues of importance. For instance, American Spirit tobacco had a “freedom to breathe” ad that listed a variety of freedoms or rights, including the freedom to marry.
“It kind of used our own civil rights against us,” Worthington observes.
GLBT support—or, at best, nonresponse—to the tobacco industry may be having negative consequences apart from health concerns.
As Worthington points out, “The tobacco industry is very well-known for giving big political campaign donations to Republicans and right-wing political campaigns, so the money we are putting into this product is being used by the company to then fund political campaigns that end up trying to push forward antigay legislation. So, we are kind of screwing ourselves that way.”
However, Worthington relates that most people in the GLBT community are unaware of the issues surrounding tobacco use. Health consequences may be widely known, but under-the-surface issues, such as political funding, often go unchallenged. That is why community leaders must begin to see smoking as a social justice issue.
In Worthington’s words, “In my experience—and what I have struggled with—I think GLBT community leaders do not see tobacco as a priority, because there are so many other health disparities. But if you really look at, for instance, HIV, which is the number-one health priority that most people will mention, well, if people with HIV are smoking heavily, there is such a gigantic possibility that they could become sicker. I think it is such an important issue that we haven’t really taken a look at.”
The American Cancer Society reports that more than 30,000 members of the GLBT community die annually because of tobacco-related diseases. Despite these numbers, Worthington finds it challenging to get leaders to recognize the importance
As Worthington puts it, “Many in the GLBT community are still under the impression that if we are trying to police our tobacco use, it’s kind of like trying to tell me what I can and can not do, and we don’t want to be told where and when we can do things, because we aren’t allowed to be ourselves already. It seems like we are stepping on somebody’s rights again. But for me, it’s about healthy GLBT communities, and what can we do to make our community healthier and make better role models. That’s what it is about for us.”
Here are some tips:
Trying To Help Someone Quit
• Don’t nag the person. He or she probably already has heard about the health consequences, and more than likely has tried to quit in the past. The individual needs your support, not your parenting.
• Find resources for the person in advance.
• Support the person along the journey. Offer to partake in smoke-free, stress-free activities with him or her.
• Check in with the person, and let him or her know you’re proud of his or her success.
Trying To Quit Yourself
• Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work and stick the first time.
• Most people try quitting seven to eight times before achieving success. It takes time and work.
• Find out if some form of nicotine replacement therapy is appropriate to use.
• Join a cessation program to help you along your way.
• Think ahead about your plan to quit smoking. It often works to combine strategies, such as the patch and a cessation program. Look before you leap.