Oh sure, it looks cool when that hunk in the muscle shirt fires up a Kool. But fast-forward through the hot sex, the moving-in, the romantic domestic life, and imagine down the road when you’re nursing him through emphysema or, God forbid, lung cancer.
The truth is, gay, bisexual, and transgender men are two to two-and-a-half times more likely to smoke than straight men. LGBT women also light up more often than straight women, and bisexual boys and girls have one of the highest smoking rates of all.
“If you’re a young gay youth, you have twice the pressure to start smoking,” says Sara Dreiling, CEO of the American Lung Association, Plains-Gulf Region. “As the mother of a gay son, I understand that.”
The American Lung Association’s Smoking Out a Deadly Threat: Tobacco Use in the LGBT Community report from last fall details the research and issues the community faces. And the local chapter’s Health Disparity Committee wants to get the word out and help educate the public about the dangers of smoking.
“We’ve been around since 1904,” says Dreiling of the association. “And over the years we’ve adopted issues as they have become pressing. First it was smoking in the African-American community, then seniors, and now the LGBT community. Tobacco companies are targeting them now and sponsoring events in the community, and it’s working. Their smoking rates are rising. They are smoking today at the rate of 1950s Americans overall.”
Dreiling herself started smoking at 14, but quit cold-turkey at 21. “We had a history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), allergies, and bronchitis in my family, so I just decided to quit. But not everyone can do that.”
Which is why the American Lung Association offers support programs to help you quit.
“I know that sometimes gays don’t have the support of their families because of their lifestyle, so we offer that support to help them stop smoking,” she says. “Building self-esteem can often help those wanting to stop smoking.”
Whether the cause is the stress of being ostracized, the club culture, or alcohol and drug abuse, smoking in the LGBT community has been recognized as a serious health issue for the past several years. And then there’s the problem of treatment. Smoking often leads to lung disease and even cancer, and many in the community don’t have health insurance or access to treatment for smoking-related diseases or smoking-cessation programs.
“My son Luke is married to Jacob,” Dreiling says. “But Jacob can’t get health insurance through my son’s employer like a heterosexual spouse would. Luckily, neither of them smoke, but for those that do, getting access to treatment can be hard.”
Aside from the obvious health risks associated with smoking, healthcare experts say smoking among gays is worrisome given that other potential health problems, such as AIDS, are exacerbated by smoking. Transgender men and women face even more risks from smoking when combined with hormone therapy.
Besides the report and a new brochure targeted to the community, the American Lung Association’s Health Disparity Committee wants to increase outreach and data collection. “And we would really welcome more LGBT folks to join our committee and help us get the word out,” Dreiling says. “I know it’s hard to stop smoking. It’s really hard. But changing behavior saves lives. It’s that simple.”
To get help with stop smoking or to volunteer:
American Lung Association, Plains-Gulf Region
2030 North Loop West, Ste. 250
Houston, TX 77018
Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.