Gay, lesbian and bisexual adults in Los Angeles smoke at a rate more than 50% higher than their straight counterparts and suffer disproportionately from the ill effects of tobacco use, health officials reported Thursday at the introduction of a new countywide campaign to stamp out the habit.
The Break Up With Tobacco campaign is intended to sharply reduce smoking in the gay, lesbian and bisexual community, currently an estimated 20.6% in Los Angeles County, public health chief Dr. Jonathan Fielding said.
Among heterosexual adults in the county, the smoking rate is 13.3%.
“We’re here to motivate the community to end its toxic relationship with tobacco,” Fielding said during a campaign launch event at a West Hollywood nightclub.
The American Cancer Society has reported that 30,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual smokers die from tobacco-related causes each year in the U.S. Fielding also cited recent work by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that HIV-positive smokers were far more likely to die from smoking-related ills — including cancer, heart disease and emphysema — than they were to die from complications of the virus.
As he spoke before a display of cheeky anti-smoking posters Fielding was flanked by members of the Break Up Squad, a group of young men who will spread the anti-smoking message on social media outlets such as Twitter and at nightclubs and gyms in gay-friendly neighborhoods, including West Hollywood and Long Beach.
The group’s first foray into the field will take place Friday evening at the Abbey in West Hollywood, said Zach Bradshaw, 24, a former smoker and squad member who said he was pleased that the Break Up effort wasn’t “preachy.”
Informed about the campaign Thursday morning, gay smoker Gavin Ferry, 33, who lives in North Hollywood and has tried to quit before, said he thought the effort could be successful.
“Everyone wants to stop smoking,” he said. “You need a slap in the face.”
But West Hollywood residents Joseph Rodriguez and Benjamin Berglund, both 21 and also gay, said that although the campaign might “make people think,” it wouldn’t inspire either of them to quit.
“I like it too much,” Berglund said of the habit. Most of the people he knows smoke, he said, adding that cigarette use proliferates outside nightclubs, where stepping away from loud crowds and music offers an opportunity to mingle.
“You get to know a lot of people” when you’re smoking, Berglund said.
Advocates have recognized for years that members of the LGBT community smoke at higher rates than the general population, said Bob Gordon, project director for the California LGBT Tobacco Education Partnership in San Francisco.
To some, he said, quoting a friend, alcohol and tobacco are like peanut butter and jelly for the gay community — hallmarks of a formative experience.
“Many of us came out of the closet years ago by going into a bar,” he explained. “We saw what it was to be a gay person or a lesbian person — and that person was smoking and was drinking.”
At Thursday’s event, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called out tobacco companies that target the gay community through advertising and promotions.
“This is a health justice problem,” he said. “Tobacco companies are targeting you. They’re taking advantage of you.”
Yaroslavsky, a former two-pack-a-day smoker who recalled the date he quit cold turkey — May 17, 1979 — said that there are still 900,000 smokers in Los Angeles County, and that smoking-related illnesses cost the county $4.3 billion every year.
According to a statewide analysis released by the California Department of Public Health in June, smoking rates for gay, lesbian and bisexual Californians were even higher than those reported among Angelenos: 27.4%, more than twice the 12.9% rate among heterosexuals in the state.
The state numbers pointed to troubling disparities within the LGBT community. The prevalence of smoking among lesbians, 24.4%, is 2.5 times that among heterosexual women, while the 25.8% prevalence among gay men is closer to 1.5 times than among straight men. Nearly a third of bisexual people smoke.
Social pressure has generally been an effective deterrent to smoking in the past, said Susan Cochran, an epidemiologist at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
But she also said that the importance gays, lesbians and bisexuals place on tolerance could impede the new campaign’s ability to change smokers’ habits.
Fielding said he would be happy if smoking rates among gay, lesbian and bisexual people fell into line with rates among straight people.
The eventual goal, he added, was to have no smokers at all.