LGBTQ+ people are smoking to cope with trauma. Today’s anti-tobacco activists are failing them.

Yellowing teeth. Wrinkling skin. A dry as hell cough. We’ve all seen the ads showing the dangers of smoking cigarettes. In middle school, our teachers would pass out red ribbons and “D.A.R.E.” us to be drug-free. “Just Say NO” still lingers in my brain all of these years later. 

We’ve also seen at least one person close to us who has smoked a cigarette, had one too many shots of alcohol, or used some other form of substance to cope with the stresses of daily life. With the FDA declaring youth vaping an “epidemic” in 2018, it is clear that the scare tactics didn’t work. What schools didn’t teach us as kids is truly how stressful and hard being an adult (or even a kid for that matter) is and just how easy it can be to turn to a substance such as tobacco to ease your stress… especially if you are LGBTQ+.

September is National Recovery Month, and anyone on the road toward recovery from a substance addiction should be applauded. What many people get wrong about addiction is the belief that it is a matter of choice. I draw parallels between the experiences of queer people finding ways to cope in our hate-filled world and the experiences of one of my family members who became addicted to alcohol during the 2008 recession. 

This family member’s addiction to alcohol was as much of a choice as they had in losing their job. It was as much of a choice as their father who abused them growing up. An addiction to tobacco is as much of a choice as it is to be discriminated against for being queer. 

I had the (dis)pleasure of recently attending the Orange Unified School District (USD) Board meeting where they passed a forced outing policy that will undeniably put trans and non-binary students at increased risk for homelessness and depression. 

The disgusting display of bigotry from the MAGA supporters and Proud Boys who shouted “groomers” at the top of their lungs made me thankful that I am not a teenager who is just discovering my own identity at an Orange USD school. Needless to say, I believe it’s harder to come out now than it was in 2014 when I graduated high school. It was ironic to see so many people who said to the Board that they wanted to “protect our kids”, all the while supporting a policy that had the potential to increase teen smoking, suicide and depression. A study by the Trevor Project showed that queer youth who had at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year. 

With increased stress, people look for ways to tangibly cope. People look for ways to ease the pain and trauma. One of the tangible ways used by many in our community is reliance on tobacco products. The rush of nicotine can calm a headache… at least in the short term. Nicotine is a powerful drug that can make you feel more at ease and calm when you first start to use it. But as you become more and more reliant on nicotine, your mind and body slowly grow more and more dependent on it to the point where you can’t function without it. 

For decades, the Tobacco Industry has targeted the LGBTQ+ community through advertisements featuring drag queens, and for decades, tobacco companies have relied on this path towards nicotine to fill their pockets with cash. They know full well that many of us live with trauma because they relish in it by funding ads and Pride events to grow their queer consumer base. This targeting has led to dire consequences for our community. For instance, many doctors will postpone trans-affirming care for people who smoke because tobacco can make it harder for the body to heal from surgeries. More generally, tobacco is a leading cause of premature death in queer people. 

All of this doom and gloom can make it seem like it’s a lost cause to even attempt to fight giant corporations such as Juul or Philip Morris. But just as the LGBTQ+ rights movement has always done no matter what we’ve faced, we are fighting back. We need to go beyond the “Just Say NO” rhetoric; we need systemic change. We need to do the actual work to address why people even start to use tobacco in the first place. 

Increased LGBTQ+ rates of tobacco use are a symptom of larger systemic issues. It is a lack of accessible mental health care, livable wages, and stable housing. We Breathe, a program of the LGBTQ+ Health and Human Services Network, aims to create systemic change and reduce tobacco’s place in LGBTQ+ lives. 

What good is stopping someone from smoking if they are still depressed, stressed, and anxious? All of which increase other health issues such as heart attack and stroke later in life. 

Many of my peers who are also working to eliminate tobacco from all Californian’s lives (Endgame as it’s called) are trying to do so without the slightest idea of how to speak to queer people. We Breathe is working to change that. For more information on how to get involved with We Breathe, contact [email protected].

Ryan Oda (he/him) is the We Breathe Coordinator for The California LGBTQ HHS Network, working to reduce tobacco’s impact on the LGBTQ+ Community. Ryan earned his BA in Political Science at Cal State Long Beach in 2019.

The CA LGBTQ Health & Human Services Network directs We Breathe, the Statewide Coordinating Center to reduce LGBTQ tobacco-related disparities. We Breathe provides expertise on working with LGBTQ communities, preventing and reducing tobacco use among LGBTQ Californians, and addressing tobacco-related health disparities within LGBTQ communities, to help funded projects reach their goal to eliminate tobacco use by 2035 in California.

If you or someone you know is trying to quit using tobacco, call Kick It CA at 800-300-8086 or visit to speak to a Quit Coach.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at The Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) is staffed by trans people and will not contact law enforcement. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for youth via chat, text (678-678), or phone (1-866-488-7386). Help is available at all three resources in English and Spanish.