Gays, smoking, and the"Jennings effect'

In the wake of Peter Jennings’ death from lung cancer, the quit-smoking program at New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center has had a dramatic increase in telephone calls. Can your quitting be an act of pro-gay activism?

BY Advocate.com Editors

August 17 2005 12:00 AM ET

In the wake of the recent death of ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings from smoking-related lung cancer, the quit-smoking program at the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center, like many other programs around the country, has seen a significant increase in the volume of calls from people seeking help to quit—something the media has dubbed the “Jennings effect.”

Reflecting on the impact of Jennings’s death, I am reminded of another Peter I knew, who struggled with his own demons, including smoking. I met this Peter in 1989. He was a 40-year-old gay man and a client of mine in the center’s substance abuse program, Project Connect. Peter was a survivor: He had survived coming out in his small Midwestern high school; getting himself to New York, where he could pursue a successful career in fashion; and fighting and winning his battle against alcoholism. He had been sober and in recovery for several years when he was diagnosed with AIDS.

In those days there were very few effective medical interventions, and Peter quickly succumbed to chronic lung infections, including several bouts of pneumocystis pneumonia. Peter was seeing me for help with the stress of living with AIDS, to prevent a relapse to alcoholism, and to cope with the invasive treatments. These treatments consisted of very stressful respiratory infusions. Peter would go for the treatment, and immediately after he would go outside and light a cigarette.

Around the same time, a report was released in a British medical journal showing no relationship between cigarette smoking and rapid progression to AIDS in a group of HIV-positive gay men. The preliminary results of that study gave permission to a lot of stressed-out gay men living with HIV to continue smoking. Even I was hesitant at that time to insist that Peter give up his remaining source of comfort—his cigarettes.

Peter subsequently died of HIV-related respiratory failure.

Today, we know a lot more about the relationship between smoking and illness, particularly the impact on people living with HIV/AIDS. Despite our knowledge, far too many LGBT and HIV-positive people continue to smoke. A lesbian with a family history of breast cancer, a gay man living with HIV, or a transgender teen who is taking hormones—each uses smoking as an outlet to relieve stress or sometimes to just look “cool.” While the risk of continuing to smoke is obvious, for most of us quitting is easier said than done. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, with similarities in its addictive properties to that other drug involved in a current crisis, crystal meth. Smoking cigarettes is a highly effective and relatively cheap nicotine delivery system.

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