How Tobacco Companies Harm the LGBTQ+ Community

·4 min read
gay man smoking
gay man smoking

With summer coming to a close and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community under attack once again, our community also faces another foe that is less publicized but still extremely dangerous: tobacco companies masquerading as allies in order to addict us to their harmful products and grow their customer base.

There’s a well-documented history of tobacco companies targeting Black communities with marketing for menthol cigarettes, causing disastrous public health consequences. Lesser known is the insidious targeting of the LGBTQ+ community, which both harms overall health and contributes to health disparities in our community.

According to the latest survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a quarter of lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults use at least one form of tobacco, compared to about 19 percent of straight adults (the CDC survey did not report data for transgender adults). These higher rates extend across a range of tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, and e-cigarettes. Other research has found that 51 percent of lesbian or gay smokers and 46 percent of bisexual smokers use menthol cigarettes, companies to 39 percent of straight smokers. The Food and Drug Administration has found that menthol cigarettes are even more addictive and harder to quit, worsening health disparities.

As the president of the Center for Black Equity, I strongly support the FDA’s proposed rules to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars and urge the FDA to finalize and implement this lifesaving policy without delay. Tobacco companies have profited for too long off the Black, LGBTQ+, and other communities, and it’s time to stop them. This issue is critical to the Center for Black Equity, which works to promote economic, social, and health equity for Black LGBTQ+ people globally.

The high rate of tobacco use in the LGBTQ+ community is no accident. For decades, tobacco companies have targeted our community with advertisements in magazines and gay bars, event sponsorships, and other tactics, including giving money to causes and organizations to make it appear they are an ally to the community. Exploitative ads even went so far as to show same-sex couples with the text “freedom to inhale” during the fight for marriage equality. A particularly offensive example is Project SCUM, or Sub-Culture Urban Marketing, a mid-’90s marketing plan from tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds that targeted gay and homeless people in San Francisco.

Another insidious tactic was Pride event sponsorships. Especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, money for Pride events was scarce. With few exceptions, wealthy corporations weren’t yet on board with openly supporting equality, and tobacco companies saw this as an opening, particularly with youth and young adults coming to terms with who they were (indeed, Truth Initiative found that “lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are twice as likely to smoke a cigarette before they are 13 years old”).

Many of these companies offered me five- and six-figure checks to sponsor our events. One lobbyist even offered me a personal check, which would be reimbursed by the tobacco company. That’s how desperate they were to build their bottom line at our expense. We wanted our events to be positive and healthy — I knew that if we took tobacco money, we’d be compromised.

I always refused the money, but I knew these companies would keep trying, and they did. Everywhere I’ve lived as an out gay man, I’ve seen the same tactics to hook members of our community.

In New York City, every queer neighborhood festival or event had booths passing out free cigarettes. In New Orleans, I’d see the same attractive, shirtless young men passing out free samples. In D.C., event sponsorship and free samples were just as rampant. And it worked — despite never smoking myself, I came home from clubs reeking of cigarette smoke, because cigarettes were an enduring part of gay nightlife.

These days, tobacco companies still target LGBTQ+ (especially minority) communities with promotions for menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars, and e-cigarettes. As a Black gay man, I am outraged by how these companies market to us. They take advantage of our vulnerabilities with slick marketing, and it’s killing us.

However, we’re making progress. More Pride events are recognizing the harmful impact of tobacco use and rejecting sponsorships from tobacco companies, and the federal government is taking critical action. If the FDA swiftly implements the ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, LGBTQ+ communities around the country will benefit — and that’s something we can all be proud of.

Earl Fowlkes Jr. is president and CEO of the Center for Black Equity, which he founded with a coalition to promote a multinational network of Black LGBTQ+ Pride and community-based organizations. He has nearly 30 years of senior management experience, including stints as executive director of the DC CARE Consortium, Damien Ministries, and organizations that provide services to people living with HIV or AIDS in Washington, D.C. He serves with several boards and organizations that promote Black and LGBTQ+ health. 

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.