Declaring War Against a Silent LGBT Epidemic

The LGBT community is no stranger to attacks on the safety, health and well-being of its members. From the recurring police harassment and violence that precipitated the Stonewall riots to the ravages of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s — coupled with an apathetic government and public — all the way through to the recent Orlando massacre, LGBT people repeatedly find themselves in the crosshairs of dangerous threats.

With such monumental obstacles to our health and well-being, it’s easy to overlook a much more subtle but even more deadly killer: smoking.

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 30,000 LGBT Americans die from tobacco-related diseases annually. By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 14,000 Americans with an AIDS diagnosis — gay, straight, transgender, and cisgender — died in 2012.

Our community spends nearly $8 billion annually on cigarettes. As a result, the U.S. Surgeon General confirms that smoking is the LGBT community’s biggest health burden. Adding to this tragedy is the fact that HIV-positive smokers lose an average of 12.5 years off their lives, compared with 5.1 years for HIV-positive nonsmokers.

Sad as these statistics are, isn’t smoking a problem for all Americans?

Yes, it is, but it’s an even bigger problem for LGBT Americans.

Smoking is much more common among lesbian gay, and bisexual adults in the United States than among heterosexual adults. Nationally, nearly one in four (23.9 percent) lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults smokes cigarettes compared with roughly one in six (16.6 percent) heterosexual adults.

As we all know, LGBT people are also likely to have risk factors for smoking like depression, anxiety, and daily stress related to prejudice and stigma — all of which lead to the urge for a cigarette. Add to that aggressive marketing by Big Tobacco directly targeting the LGBT community — including LGBT teens — and we have another potent killer on our hands.

In my home state of California, the disparity is even greater. Lesbian, gay and bisexual Californians smoke at two to three times the rate of heterosexual Californians, according to the California Department of Public Health. That’s a smoking rate of 27.4 percent among the LGBT community in California, compared to a non-LGBT smoking rate of 12.9 percent.

Smoking is the number 1 cause of preventable death in California, with a disproportionate effect on the LGBT community. This needs to change. We need to provide health care for those in our community who have become ill from smoking, we need to conduct research into cures for cancer and other tobacco-related diseases, and we need to change behaviors to reduce those disproportionately high smoking rates among LGBT people.

Fortunately, California is taking on this insidious killer with the California Healthcare, Research and Prevention Tobacco Tax Act of 2016, and Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBT civil rights organization, is proudly supporting the effort.

This initiative will raise California’s smoking tax by $2 on tobacco products, including e-cigarettes containing nicotine. EQCA has endorsed this initiative, which will help save lives, protect teens, and improve health care for members of the LGBT community and for all of California. The money raised by the tax will fund health care costs and research into cures for cancer and other tobacco-related diseases.

Here in California, we’ve discovered the effectiveness of user fees to change people’s behavior. Just look at how many of us bring reusable bags to the grocery store every week rather than pay that 10-cent bag fee. By comparison, think how many LGBT lives we can save if we bring the smoking rates in the LGBT community to lower levels through common-sense measures like this one, while funding healthcare and cancer research. It’s a win-win.

From Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign in the 1970s to the HIV epidemic to the recent horrific shootings in Orlando, our community is accustomed to rallying against outside threats. Smoking is no exception; we need to protect our community wherever its health and well-being are threatened.