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Tobacco industry targeting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community: A white paper


Smoking prevalence in the lesbian and gay community exceeds that in nearly all other demographic groups. In 2001, we undertook a four-year research project to study tobacco industry targeting of the lesbian and gay community. We researched formerly-secret tobacco industry documents, analyzed tobacco content in the gay press, interviewed leaders of LGBT organizations, and conducted focus groups with LGBT smokers and nonsmokers.

We found that tobacco companies began to advertise in the gay press in the early 1990s, initially wary of unfavorable publicity and quick to deny doing so when confronted. At the same time, the tobacco industry began to sponsor community organizations and events, especially those for AIDS-related causes, which helped burnish the industry's reputation. Many leaders and members of the community viewed this attention from major corporations as a sign that the community was becoming visible and more acceptable.

Our study found that most LGBT leaders did not consider tobacco a "gay issue". Focused on gay-specific concerns, such as homophobia, they saw tobacco as irrelevant or even a distraction from their missions. Twenty two percent of organizations we studied reported accepting financial support from the tobacco industry. Only 24% thought tobacco was one of the top three health concerns of the community. Many believed that smoking was solely a personal choice, not an issue of concern for the community as a whole.

The queer press normalized smoking. Images of tobacco, most conveying positive or neutral messages, were common. We found that many ads for products other than cigarettes glamorized smoking, and many articles having nothing to do with smoking were illustrated with tobacco use images. Only 11% of all non-advertising items we found (images and text) imparted a negative message about tobacco use. Very few LGBT publications had policies against accepting tobacco ads.

By the time the study ended, an increasing number of LGBT advocates were working in tobacco control. We recommend activities that promote a community dialogue about the real costs of accepting tobacco industry advertising and funding. For example, some groups are urging LGBT politicians and organizations to sign pledges not to take tobacco industry money. As mainstream tobacco control has begun to recognize the need of the LGBT community for services, we recommend that LGBT organizations apply for funding, perhaps using the infrastructures the community has developed to provide services for breast cancer and HIV.

Additional research to develop models for getting tobacco on the community's agenda would be useful. For example, understanding how alcohol and other drugs became seen as gay-specific community concerns—even though, like tobacco, they affect everyone—could be helpful. Finding ways to challenge the views of some young gay people—that most queers smoke—might make it easier to help them remain smokefree. Perhaps a greater

understanding of the coming out process—in which one's authentic self challenges societal norms—could help arm young people with the strength to resist tobacco. Finally, one of the lessons of the larger LGBT movement itself—the importance of holding institutions accountable for the harm they cause—might help the community stop thinking of smoking as a personal issue, and think of it instead as a systemic issue, with a culpable industry at the heart of the problem.

* Many community organizations define themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT). When possible, we included bisexual and transgender people in our study. Throughout this paper, the terms LGBT, queer, and gay are used interchangeably to acknowledge the diversity of the community and to respect the variety of ways in which LGBT people identify themselves.

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