National report shows high tobacco use by LGBTs

The Network for LGBT Health Equity developed this graphic to show the prevalence of tobacco use in the LGBT community. (Design: Tusk and Dagger)

The Network for LGBT Health Equity developed this graphic to show the prevalence of tobacco use in the LGBT community. (Design: Tusk and Dagger)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

LGBTs have long been known to smoke more than their straight counterparts and a new national report issued by the U.S. surgeon general backs that up: community members light up at a rate 65 percent higher than heterosexuals.

The 32nd tobacco-related surgeon general’s report was released last week, on the anniversary of the office’s first study 50 years ago linking tobacco use with cancer.

The report details the implications of tobacco use on the American populace since 1964. This year’s report, titled “Health Consequences of Smoking: 50 Years of Progress,” makes specific reference to health disparities within the LGBT community. It marks only the third time LGBT subgroups have been mentioned and the first time the LGBT community in its entirety has been cited as a disparity group.

“It’s taken so long for the LGBT community to be considered a health disparity population,” said Daniella Mathews-Trigg, program administrator of the Network for LGBT Health Equity at CenterLink. “With every federal document that includes LGBT comes more funding for data collection and, hopefully, we can close those disparity gaps.”

Recently, Mathews-Trigg continued, enough data around LGBT smoking has emerged to serve as the impetus behind making specific reference to the subject on a federal level. The report stated that the LGBT community spends $7.9 billion on cigarettes each year which, according to Mathews-Trigg, is 65 times more than government agencies, nonprofits, and all other health-focused entities combined spend on LGBT health annually.

Other updated data outlined by the report includes a figure for overall LGBT community smoking prevalence. The LGBT population smokes at a rate 65 percent higher than the general population – 20 percent of the general population smokes compared to 33 percent of the LGBT population. Additionally, HIV-positive smokers live 7.2 years less than HIV-negative smokers.

Acting Surgeon General Dr. Boris D. Lushniak released a statement with the report emphasizing the importance of highlighting LGBT smoking.

“From the surgeon general’s perspective we look at the data. People ask where are the disparities now, and we use LGBT as an example of one of those disparities,” he said. “I’m a man in uniform and this is a war. LGBT smoking is important to us, because the numbers aren’t good. What we need to decide is what is the best strategic and tactical approach to bring those numbers down?”

Mathews-Trigg said using this moment as a call to action is the next step. While HIV among LGBTs has largely and appropriately been the community’s focus for so long, she said, tobacco use has been neglected.

“Many people don’t realize the connection between tobacco and the general health of the community,” Mathews-Trigg said. “We have this moment where everyone is paying attention and we want to highlight this issue as an even bigger killer than HIV.”

In Santa Clara County, where officials released results of the first-ever LGBT health survey, data show smokers mirror the national statistics; South Bay LGBT smokers are three times more likely to light up.

The health survey, “Status of LGBTQ Health: Santa Clara County, California 2013,” was released January 10.

The county’s bisexual and gay men, who made up 33 percent and 22 percent of smokers, respectively, represent nearly a quarter of the South Bay’s LGBT residents. Bisexual women and lesbians made up 23 percent and 19 percent of smokers, respectively. Transgender individuals made up 19 percent of the population that lights up.

The South Bay findings alarmed Brian Davis, a 54-year-old gay man who is the California Tobacco Control Program coordinator at the Tri-City Health Center in Fremont.

“This represents a serious problem in the LGBT community – that we are smoking three times as much in comparison to the general population in Santa Clara County,” said Davis. “We need to look at taking action to address that problem.”

Davis, who has been working in LGBT tobacco control for six years, is also project director of the Just for Us LGBT Tobacco Prevention Project as a part of his responsibilities at the center.

While a comprehensive approach to combating LGBT tobacco use on a national level has yet to be devised, the Network for LGBT Health Equity is currently drafting an LGBTQ Wellness Needs Assessment survey to collect more information around health issues experienced by the LGBT community. To be released to all major LGBT community and health organizations around the country this summer, the network intends for the survey to shed even more light on LGBT smoking prevalence.

“Understanding this as a big issue and having more federal data will create an excitement for change,” Mathews-Trigg said. “We want the heads of LGBT organizations as well as individuals to be more aware. On the federal data collection level, we want the continued inclusion of the LGBT community on health surveys.”

Heather Cassell contributed to this report.

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