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?



We are also a community that struggles: with the onslaught of stigma, discrimination, ongoing attacks from the Right, and the lack of consistent inclusion of our issues by the mainstream Left. So giving up the cheap and legal drug that acts as a sedative, a stimulant, and a defense against all the stressors we face still eludes the more than 30% of our population who smoke. In addition, the tobacco companies, although taking a much lower profile these days, still tempt LGBT organizations hard-pressed for cash with promises of corporate underwriting in exchange for adding a smoking lounge promoting their product at an LGBT event or festival. As recently as last year, the LGBT Center was approached by a major tobacco company with an offer of corporate support for our youth program. They are no fools and have some nerve: Smoking rates among LGBT youth are reportedly at 59%, versus 25% for the general youth population.

So what do we do about all of it? The good news is that there is a cadre of antitobacco researchers, health advocates, and cessation experts among LGBT people who have been working very hard and in collaboration with one another over the past five years to develop and implement a national action plan to combat tobacco dependence in our communities. Also, with support from the American Legacy Foundation to initiate LGBT tobacco-cessation services, we have been able to develop a network of prevention and cessation services around the country to assist LGBT and HIV-positive people to get support to quit.

But the motivation to quit has to go beyond personal and individual health concerns. We have known for many years that the tobacco industry, while courting LGBT organizations with promises of small donations, has spent millions funding those very politicians who oppose our civil liberties and our rights to equal protection and equal access. Recently the LGBT community, through the National Coalition for LGBT Health, joined other minority organizations in filing an amicus brief to the current Justice Department suit against the tobacco industry. This brief claims damages for years of targeted marketing to minority communities, including ours, when the industry knew full well the damage tobacco would do. The current administration in Washington has been under fire for undermining its own Justice Department suit by attempting to settle the suit for approximately 10% of the total.

I quit smoking 12 years ago with lots of help and support from this community. As a passionate ally for LGBT justice and civil rights, I implore my LGBT and HIV-positive brothers and sisters who are still smoking to reach out and get help to quit, and in doing so, be an activist! Quit as a political statement—I guarantee you will feel better, breathe better, and save lots of money.

Peter Jennings died far too young, but his legacy of inspiring thousands of people to quit over the last few weeks is a fitting tribute to his life. So let ’s also remember my former client Peter and be inspired in his memory and the memory of all our fallen brothers and sisters. And let’s do something about it.

Tags: Commentary