What does tobacco have to do with gay pride?
A Capitol Hill-based gay health organization, Gay City, made headlines recently for spearheading a new requirement for Seattle PrideFest registrants. The requirement mandates that all vendors (including local non-profits) submit tobacco control policies in order to complete P
rideFest registration. This left many organizations scrambling to make sense of whyand what they were being asked (or, as some say, forced) to do. It seemed the “nanny-state” of public health was at it again and Gay City was to blame.
Admittedly, people don’t appreciate being told what to do—especially LGBT people who fight daily battles just to be themselves. Personal freedom is a quality that resonates with many LGBT people and allies. Unfortunately, the freedom to smoke is often wrapped up in that same sentiment. I say unfortunately because this is an argument that is neither innate nor beneficial to LGBT people.
The tobacco industry has capitalized and exploited LGBT people’s sense of personal freedom for decades—as evidenced by internal industry documents. Because of industry marketing that targets LGBT communities (through sponsorship of Pride events, funding for LGBT co
mmunity organizations, and ads in LGBT publications), LGBT people smoke and die at alarming rates. In fact, more LGBT people die from tobacco than from alcohol, drugs, AIDS, gay bashings, and suicides COMBINED. And, as evidence from a 2009 National Cancer Institute report, the tobacco industry is to blame. The direct link from targeted marketing to higher tobacco use is no longer theory. Irrefutable evidence demonstrates a causal relationship.
Not only do more LGBTs start smoking compared to our straight counterparts, we also have a harder time quitting. In general, most smokers want to quit, over half try to quit each year, but only 5% of them su
cceed. To be fair, recent research shows that LGBT smokers want to quit just as much as straight smokers… and they try as often, too. But, compared to straight smokers, LGBTs are only half as likely to succeed at quitting. Why? Because nicotine is highly addictive and because the tobacco industry targets LGBT people. With those numbers, it’s hard to believe that smoking is really a personal choice.
Consider this: LGBT people smoke and die more from tobacco related illnesses than any other population in the U.S. Recent CDC data reveals that over 70% of queer youth have smoked, and data consistently suggests that 50% or more of LGBT adults continue to smoke. Why is this alarming? Because half of all adult smokers will die early from a tobacco-related disease. That means a quarter of the LGBT community will be eliminated because of tobacco. Even more will suffer from a nonlethal tobacco related illness. LGBT people don’t choose to smoke and die more, we do it because the tobacco industry exploits us. That is nothing short of genocide.
On June 28, 1969, our queer predecessors took to the streets at Stonewall and fought back against persecution of sexual mino
rities. We continue their legacy each June when we return to the streets and celebrate Pride. Today, tobacco use is the LGBT community’s greatest threat… unless we do something about it. It’s time we stop fighting each other and start fighting back.
Karin R. Riggs, MSW
Ms. Riggs is a behavioral health researcher at Group Health and clinical instructor at the University of Washington. She’s not affiliated with Gay City or PrideFest, but she thinks what they are trying to do is awesome.