Legacy Helps LGBTs Quit Smoking

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Friday January 3, 2014

Did you know that gays smoke cigarettes at rates nearly 70 percent higher than the general population, and tobacco companies target the LGBT community specifically? There are 440,000 preventable deaths from tobacco-related causes each year. Maybe it's time to make that resolution happen, and let Legacy help you kick that butt for good.

"Legacy has been working to support the LGBT community since its inception, doing everything from funding grant projects to listening sessions, convening folks to talk about issues facing the community," said Legacy's Senior Vice President of Collaboration and Outreach William Furmanski. "Last year we had a report published with our findings and hosted a webinar to have a national dialogue."

Legacy is a Washington, D.C.-based foundation responsible for truth®, the national youth smoking prevention campaign that has been cited as contributing to significant declines in youth smoking. Their education campaigns include EX®, an innovative public health program designed to speak to smokers in their own language and change the way they approach quitting. Legacy helps people live longer, healthier lives by building a world where young people reject tobacco, and anyone can quit.

Furmanski cited statistics that reveal the LGBT community has some of the highest rates of smoking among any population group -- in fact, dramatically higher than the public at large. This means that the disease and death caused by tobacco use impacts our community at a much higher rate.

"Anything we can do to help individuals understand the risks in smoking and how they can improve their health by quitting, and strategies used by the tobacco industry to attract them to a product are important," said Furmanski. "We realized that even just relaying these harms would help the LGBT community, because tobacco use takes a back seat to other health issues in our community like HIV/AIDS. Many people think smoking can be okay to deal with the stress in life."

Legacy Teams Up With Activists for Success

Helping people quit smoking is a big job, and Legacy finds success by teaming up with local activists like San Francisco's Bob Gordon, MPH, who has spent much of his career raising awareness around the pervasive problem of tobacco use in the LGBT community, as well as building a committed community of LGBT activists and allies. Gordon currently serves as Project Director at The California LGBT Tobacco Education Partnership.

Every year Legacy identifies and honors a local-level community activist, and the 2013 Legacy Community Activist Award goes to Gordon for his long history with anti-smoking campaigns in the LGBT community, dating all the way back to his work as a coordinator and class facilitator in 1991 with the program The Last Drag, a free support group for people who want to quit, and 1993's Coalition of Lavender-Americans on Smoking and Health (CLASH). Legacy will present him with the award at a ceremony during an upcoming training in San Francisco.

Gordon has been pivotal in bringing the LGBT community together to take a stand against the tobacco industry, while championing smoking cessation classes geared specifically to LGBT and HIV-positive smokers. He has collaborated with organizations and is a major player in the movement to pass San Francisco's groundbreaking legislation prohibiting the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies.

Furmanski said that the Legacy panel "though Bob was fantastic. I know him personally, and he's been a community stalwart in San Francisco for longer than I can remember. If you opened the dictionary to 'activist,' Bob Gordon's picture would be there."

"I'm very thankful and honored to do this work," said Gordon. "I lost three relatives to tobacco-related diseases, so if this is a way I can give back, I'm happy to do it for as long as we have communities targeted by the tobacco industry."

In addition to helping create a shared sense of purpose within the LGBT community, Gordon has also built bridges to other communities working in tobacco control. Mobilizing the partner networks was important in getting California to start collecting data on sexual orientation through its quit lines -- data that is useful to measure the scope and impact of tobacco use in the LGBT community. As a result of his tireless efforts, the LGBT community has been better educated about the tremendous harm from tobacco for LGBT people.

"Bob deeply cares about the well-being of all communities," said Gary Chow, MPH, American Cancer Society. "He is a cherished leader who continues to spark the tobacco control movement."

Tobacco Companies Specifically Target LGBT Smokers

According to Gordon, the tobacco industry specifically targets the LGBT community with a range of ads that play on our emotions. Some have even given donations to elected LGBT officials. When people discover this, he said, they are often surprised.

Download a PDF of Tobacco Control in LGBT Communities here.

"An American Spirit ad running in The Advocate plays on the idea of different freedoms. The tobacco industry tries to be a friend to us, so when we hear ad campaigns that tout 'the freedom to marry... to live... to inhale,' there are reasons for that," said Gordon. "They know we smoke at high levels and continue to struggle to quit with fewer resources, and they continue to hammer at us in all these different ways. Yet our community is resilient and we can help each other quit."

Gordon pointed to pro-gay ad campaigns that tout things like, "I didn't survive HIV so I could die from lung cancer." Cigarettes are our real enemy, he said, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are more deaths from smoking than from AIDS, drugs, breast cancer and gay bashing combined.

"It's important to recognize that while it's about the individual, it's also about the industry that bears down hard on vulnerable communities by talking about freedom," said Gordon.

But How Can I Quit Alone?

The good news is, you don't have to. Legacy has spent a lot of time and money creating BecomeAnEx.org, a free online quit smoking resource and community based on the latest scientific research and input from ex-smokers, and is designed to empower smokers to re-learn life without cigarettes.

"A lot of people know why they should quit, they know it's not good for them, that it causes cancer or heart disease, but what people don't know, gay or straight, is that you will want a plan to quit smoking," said Furmanski. "Our Ex program breaks it down into pieces so it's not a monster of a process, then takes you through the steps."

These steps include assessing all the bad habit and behaviors that make you want to smoke, addressing the physical addiction and what happens in your brain when you smoke, and creating a support network of friends and family that will make your quitting more likely to be successful.

Approximately 650,000 individuals have joined the site since it was launched in 2008, many of whom find support and information from other smokers and ex-smokers in the online community. BecomeAnEX.org has helped to thousands of smokers connect and support each other through their quitting journey and never look back.

There are also other ways that can help you succeed, said Gordon, who advised prospective quitters to talk to their pharmacist for advice about FDA-approved ways of helping quit like patches, gums and inhalers.

"Notice that I am not including electronic cigarettes, which are not approved by the FDA," said Gordon. "If you use a prescription like Chantix, there are certainly suicide risks for people struggling with mental illness and you will definitely want a thorough mental health checkup before. Meds are good but they do have side effects, that's why the more alternatives you can access, the better. Many people go cold turkey but still want to do a whole lot of planning."

It’s Too Hard, It’s Too Late, It Won’t Help

If you've been smoking a pack a day for the last 20 years, will quitting now even make a difference? Absolutely, say experts!

"A lot of people don't know the good news: just 24 hours after your last cigarette, your chance of a heart attack decreases," said Gordon. "By three months, you have a 30 percent increase in lung function. A lot of people worry about their ability to quit, but even short quit attempts are great practice for a lifetime free of tobacco."

The biggest obstacle often comes after you quit, said Gordon. When people enter "trigger" situations like drinking at a bar or party, they often slip back into their familiar behaviors. They feel terrible about it, he said, but he reminds them that quitting is a process, and it takes practice. It's not generally something that people can stop without a great deal of planning and support. He advised people to employ the help of friends, family, local resources and toll-free hotlines.

What Do I Do Now That I Quit?

What will you do when you quit? In his decades of work helping people kick the habit, Gordon asked successful quitters what they would do with their newfound money, time and energy.

"They say they will finally run that half marathon, learn to play a musical instrument, or the like," said Gordon. "There is a lot of artistic creative expressions that people take up once they are finally free from tobacco."

For more information about Legacy, visit www.LegacyforHealth.org/LGBT, 'Like' them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter @legacyforhealth

For help quitting smoking, visit BecomeAnEX.org


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Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.