By Bob Gordon
The state of California is a leader and shining example for LGBT equality. In 1978, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to a political office in California. In 2005, the California legislature became the first to pass a bill allowing marriage between same-sex couples. Eight years later, the Supreme Court ruled against supporters of Proposition 8, giving California same-sex couples marriage equality.
As we reflect and celebrate all of the advancements in LGBT equality over the years, let’s take a moment to acknowledge an often overlooked ill that’s still holding our community back from progress: tobacco.
The stats are startling. In fact, research from the California Department of Public Health found that lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals in California are twice as likely to smoke as the straight population (27 percent vs. 13 percent).
What’s just as alarming is the number of LGBT lives taken as a result of tobacco use. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tobacco kills more people in the United States than HIV, car accidents, illegal drugs and suicide combined.
For many in the LGBT community, lighting up a cigarette or vaping may be seen as a social activity with no serious long-term affects — but the numbers tell us otherwise. Tobacco use is a public health issue with far-reaching consequences beyond just those who smoke.
For example, LGBT Californians are nearly two times more likely than straight Californians to let someone smoke in their homes, even if they don’t smoke (40 percent vs. 23 percent). In addition, LGBT Californians are exposed more frequently to secondhand smoke in social settings, such as bars and restaurants, than straight Californians.
According to the CDC, tobacco is particularly dangerous for transgender women taking estrogen, as smoking increases the risk of blood clots, heart conditions and stroke. Smoking also puts people with HIV and HPV at greater risk of infections such as mouth sores, pneumonia and lung cancer.
So how does this happen? Why is tobacco use so prevalent in the LGBT community specifically?
Research suggests that the LGBT community’s high smoking rates may be linked to the stress of discrimination and direct targeting by the tobacco industry. The LGBT community has been targeted by the tobacco industry for decades.
In the 1990s, RJ Reynolds launched “Project SCUM,” a marketing campaign aimed at selling cigarettes to LGBT and homeless San Franciscans.
The tobacco industry has spent a great amount of money on campaign contributions to LGBT elected officials, funding AIDS and LGBT organizations, and sponsorship of community and Pride events.
I’ve personally seen the industry’s deceptive marketing tactics against the gay community through my work with the California LGBT Tobacco Education Program. Every day I hear stories from individuals who are trying to quit and I’m alarmed to learn about Newport cigarettes being distributed at Pride events and that e-cigarette companies are sponsoring these events.
LGBT individuals are targeted with menthol products, which pose an even greater health risk than regular cigarettes. Sadly, the ads seem to be working. In 2014, 54 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual adult smokers in California reported smoking menthol cigarettes compared to only 27 percent of straight adult smokers in California.
The targeting must stop. We’ve come too far in our fight for LGBT rights to let tobacco drag us down.
My hope is that together, we can create awareness about the harmful effects tobacco has on the LGBT community. I encourage all LGBT Californians to become advocates to quit before it’s too late.
For resources to quit, call 1-800-NO-BUTTS. In Español, call 1-800-45-No-FUME. Or visit nobutts.org.
—Bob Gordon, MPH, serves as project director for the California LGBT Tobacco Education Partnership. He also co-facilitates The Last Drag, a free stop-smoking program for the LGBT community in San Francisco. As co-chair of the San Francisco Tobacco Free Coalition, Gordon helped organize San Francisco’s Tobacco 21 ordinance and was key in the passage of the first tobacco-free pharmacy ordinance in the U.S. Gordon has been honored with a number of awards for his work, including the 2013 Community-based Leadership Award from the Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs Section of the American Public Health Association and the 2013 Community Activist Award from the American Legacy Foundation.