Studies show gay community smokes more

By Amanda Friz and Christina DeVore

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender college students smoke more often than heterosexual students, according to several studies.

A report published in 1999 by a University of California, San Francisco epidemiologist reports that 50 percent of gay men between the ages of 18 to 24 are smoking cigarettes.

Nationwide, there are twice as many gay male smokers as there are straight male smokers, the study also reports.

Increased peer pressure, lifestyle changes and increased advertisements targeting the gay community are potential reasons why gays are lighting up.

“I think that’s very true,” said Evan Done, president of the U’s Lesbian Gay Student Union.

Done, himself a smoker, cited increased peer pressure as one reason why the GLBT community is twice as likely to pick up a cigarette.

Gay students will often find themselves alienated from the rest of the college community, Done explained, so acceptance in alternative communities becomes even more important.

“[There are] social pressures that occur with additional stressors,” he said.

A Michigan State University study confirms Done’s opinion. In 1999, MSU sent a nationwide survey to 119 colleges and found that more than 30 percent of all college smokers consider themselves “casual users” or “social smokers,” a statistic that points to conformity as a common reason for smoking.

Also among the social pressures a gay student experiences may be a desire to reject the rest of the college community, Done said.

Although most smokers begin at age 12 or 13, those who started in college first lit up during their freshman year, said Barbara Hardy, associate director of the Utah Addiction Center.

Freshmen will usually begin smoking because of a transitional adjustment to college life, she said.

Likewise, the gay community is susceptible to such transitional pressures.

In addition to both stressors, the gay community is also the focus of more and more tobacco ads, said Jennifer Nuttall, director of adult programs at the GLBT Community Center.

According to internal documents that were made public as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, Philip Morris did extensive GLBT marketing research in the mid-1990s called “Project Sub Culture Urban Marketing,” or “Project SCUM.”

The researchers, New York-based Guiles & Associates, reported “in a society where male homosexuality is often interpreted to mean non-masculinity, Marlboro is particularly appreciated as a cue to manhood.”

The researchers further concluded that the company could use the Marlboro Man image to target the GLBT community and increase tobacco sales.

The ads are a double-edged sword for homosexuals.

“The gay community is very loyal and tries to support the brands that support gay rights,” Nuttall said. Some tobacco companies, like Philip Morris, however, will use those gay dollars to support conservative politicians.

In 1990, the Washington, D.C. chapter of Act-Up, an AIDS advocacy group, issued a boycott against Marlboro cigarettes to protest Philip Morris backing former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., a leading opponent of gay rights.

In order to help extinguish gay smoking, the community center has created several anti-tobacco programs.

On Nov. 18, the center hosted its annual Last Drag drag show in honor of the Great American Smokeout.

Nuttall said the event was held to “educate the GLBT community on tobacco usage patterns and ways that Big Tobacco targets” homosexuals.

The center’s anti-tobacco program, Queers Kick Ash, supported the drag show, in addition to Queer Prom 2004. These programs are meant to encourage homosexuals to make wiser choices regarding health, Nuttall said.

On the Web site, www.queerskickash.org, there is also information about quitting classes tailored to the homosexual community that are taught through the center.

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