SACO — As we near the end of LGBTQ History Month, it’s important to celebrate the civil rights victories of the LGBTQ community. However, one civil rights issue that remains is equal access to the opportunity to live a healthy, tobacco-free life. As a member of this community, I feel strongly that it’s time we start talking about Big Tobacco’s historical and continued targeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mainers, and what we can do to protect these communities.
Tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death in the nation, and LGBT Mainers are among the hardest hit. While overall smoking rates have declined in recent years, smoking rates remain higher among specific subpopulations. Overall in 2017 the smoking rate among lesbian, gay and bisexual adults was significantly higher than the smoking rate for straight adults, 20.3 percent and 13.7 percent respectively. There is limited data available on smoking rates among transgender adults; however, one study found higher smoking rates among transgender adults than among cisgender adults. Sadly, every year more than 30,000 LGBT persons die from tobacco-related diseases.
The statistics are even more staggering when looking at lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. In Maine, 7.5 percent of straight high school students indicate that they smoke cigarettes, compared to 15.2 percent of gay or lesbian, 16.0 percent of bisexual and 28.0 percent of transgender young adults. When considering that the majority of adults who smoke begin smoking in their teens, this means that these LGBTQ youth are at significantly greater risk of developing a lifelong addiction to tobacco.
None of this is by accident – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high rates of tobacco use within the LGBTQ community are due in part to the aggressive marketing by tobacco companies that sponsor events, bar promotions, giveaways and advertisements.
Take the 1995 plan by R.J. Reynolds to build its brand in San Francisco’s gay community – a project deliberately titled “Project SCUM.” While “SCUM,” documented in internal R.J. Reynolds memos, stood for “subculture urban marketing,” the underlying message they were sending was clear. Big Tobacco can sell inclusivity through sponsoring pride events and advertising in LGBTQ publications, but there’s no hiding their true intentions – to hook lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals on their deadly products. Over two decades later, little has changed.
Every year the tobacco industry spends $9.5 billion marketing their deadly products in the United States, including $48.5 million in Maine alone. Big Tobacco makes a concerted attempt to hook the LGBTQ community on menthol-flavored cigarettes, which are easier to start using and more difficult to quit.
Fortunately, we know how we can move the needle and help protect LGBTQ individuals from Big Tobacco’s continued targeting.
On behalf of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, I call on Maine legislators to recommit to fighting the impact of Big Tobacco here in Maine, including protecting all Mainers from a lifetime of tobacco addiction. Lawmakers must work to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products including mint and menthol, increase the state’s cigarette excise tax by $1.50 per pack and sustainably and adequately fund tobacco prevention and cessation efforts statewide.
By advocating for evidence-based policies like those listed, we can make a significant dent in tobacco use rates among all Mainers and reduce health disparities, including those related to individuals who disproportionately use tobacco, like the LGBTQ community. But only if we mobilize to take action through advocacy and education.
Together, we can beat Big Tobacco’s influence and embrace a future free of tobacco addiction and exploitation.
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