Is tobacco a gay issue?

By Allie Connell

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Tobacco is responsible for one in five deaths in the United States and is cited as the number one cause of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. The ACS lists statistics about how smoking is linked to both race and age, but mentions nothing about the disproportionate link to orientation found in recent studies.

In an article in the journal of Cancer, Causes, and Control, it was found that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals smoke at rates 50 percent to 200 percent greater than the general public, which makes them one of the groups most severely affected by smoking.

The study goes on to show that lesbians were 70 percent more likely to smoke than other women and that gay men were 50 percent more likely to smoke than other men. These numbers are even higher when discussing LGBT youths ranging from middle school to high school age.

In an attempt to understand why this certain community finds itself so heavily entrenched in smoking, studies have been done analyzing contributing factors. These factors include but are not limited to socioeconomic status, race, social stressors and the tobacco industry itself.

Findings suggest that the social stress that comes from discrimination, societal ostracization and homophobia contribute to a disproportionate amount of daily stress experiences by the LGBT community. This increased level of stress is important to note since smoking is more predominant in groups and individuals that are exposed to high levels of stress.

The tobacco industry, particularly the conglomerate Philip Morris Inc., has targeted minority groups in their advertising. These minority groups, especially blacks, tend to be experiencing stress or anxiety from their social standing.

The marketing techniques focused on positive portrayals of community members in advertisements. Offering these subsection groups a product that glorifies them and gives them a presence in the larger social media positively associates the company in the community’s eyes.

The tobacco industry has also gained favor amongst the LGBT public by supporting gay rights and LGBT organizations nationwide. Through their support, they gain advertising spots at Pride events and gay activist rallies all over.

When companies express anti-gay sentiments or are seen donating to known homophobic organizations, the LGBT community and its allies rally to bring attention to the prejudice and quickly boycott the institution. An example of this being Chick-fil-A and the aftermath of the company’s president, Dan Cathy, restating its fiscal and moral support of “Biblical families.” LGBT groups rose up and protested the company’s stance. The message rang out loud and clear: if you support gay rights, don’t support Chick-fil-A by giving them your business.

By supporting the LGBT cause, the tobacco industry gives the gay community incentive to buy the products of the tobacco companies. An ad in The Advocate, a well-known LGBT-centered publication, for cigarettes made by the Philip Morris Company not only targets the community through where it is being published but also directly shows consumers that it supports their lifestyle and wants to help the cause.

When an expose piece in the “Wall Street Journal” was published in 1992 about Philip Morris targeting the gay community, gay publications were attacked for allowing the advertisements. They responded by saying that they needed the funding and although they didn’t necessarily want to promote smoking, every paid advertisement would help promote the journal and its unique point of view.

Smoking occupies a specialized niche in the LGBT community. Not only does it unify members of the group by offering a communal activity over which to bond, but it also provides a momentary relief from the stress some individuals in the group experience. The health risks can be forgotten when a sense of belonging is fostered by going outside for a smoke and conversing with a group of people who share common stressors and experiences.

As more evidence unmasks the disproportionate percentage of LGBT smokers and the reasons why there is a positive association between tobacco and the community, LGBT activist groups are attempting to turn the tide. Groups like the Boston-based The Fenway Institute are looking to bring to light statistics about the prevalence of tobacco use amongst LGBT’s and create support groups for those trying to quit.

These companies are also trying to bring to light the connection between the tobacco industry and their support of the gay rights efforts. In doing so, they are hoping to expose the twisted relationship between the two and how the community is being targeted.

With the American Cancer Society estimating 33,000 LGBT people dying from tobacco related diseases each year, it is apparent that smoking is still a problem with the general public but in particular with certain minority groups.

Allie Connell is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]