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Guest Blog: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) Advocacy is a Tobacco Prevention Issue

Yellowing teeth. Wrinkling skin. A dry as hell cough. We’ve all seen the ads showing the dangers of smoking cigarettes. In middle school, our teachers would pass out red ribbons and “D.A.R.E.” us to be drug free. “Just Say NO” still lingers in my brain all of these years later.

We’ve also seen at least one person close to us that has smoked a cigarette, had one too many shots of alcohol, or used some other form of substance to cope with the stresses of daily life. With the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) declaring youth vaping an “epidemic” in 2018, it is clear that the scare tactics didn’t work. What schools didn’t teach us as kids is truly how stressful and hard being an adult (or even kid for that matter) is and just how easy it can be to turn to a substance such as tobacco to ease your stress … especially if you are LGBTQ+.

I had the (dis)pleasure of attending the Orange Unified School District (USD) Board meeting last year where they passed a forced outing policy that will undeniably put trans and non-binary students at increased risk for homelessness and depression. The disgusting display of bigotry from those who shouted to the top of their lungs “groomers” made me thankful that I wasn’t a teenager who is just discovering my own identity at an Orange USD school. This hatred is becoming a national issue.

We have already seen the direct consequences of anti-LGBTQ+ vitriol from the likes of transphobes like Libs of TikTok (the handle of a right-wing, anti-LGBTQ+ social media presence, most popular on Twitter) and many others, with the murder of Nex Benedict in Oklahoma on February 7th, 2024 being particularly resonate. The evidence shows that bullying and harassment in schools has lead to LGBTQ+ youth smoking at higher rates. After Nex Benedict’s death, the LGBTQ+ Youth Crisis Hotline’s calls from Oklahoma increased by 300%. As we continue to see an increase in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and violence, queer youth will only become more stressed and likely to use tobacco as a way to cope.

For decades, tobacco companies have funded ads and Pride events to take advantage of the heightened stress the LGBTQ+ Community faces. This targeting has led to dire consequences for our community. For instance, many doctors will postpone trans affirming care for people who smoke because tobacco can make it harder for the body to heal from surgeries. More generally, tobacco is a leading cause of premature death in queer people.

We Breathe, together with LGBTQ+ regional projects and staff, continues to push for more inclusive tobacco prevention policies and for advocates to be cognizant of the increasingly stressful reality many LGBTQ+ people are facing. We Breathe, alongside OUT Against Big Tobacco Los Angeles, recently facilitated workshops to help LGBTQ+ youth in Los Angeles  handle stress and anti-queer bigotry. In addition to the incredible policy efforts many projects are working on, having conversations about the reality LGBTQ+ people are living in and how to create healthy coping strategies is an essential step towards eliminating tobacco use in California.

We Breathe is organizing a monthly social space for the California Tobacco Prevention Program (CTPP)funded projects to come together as LGBTQ+ advocates and allies to share space, discuss challenges, and celebrate victories big and small. This space is open to all projects every month. We will be hosting trainings and other opportunities for projects to learn how to engage the LGBTQ+ Community. The reality is that it is more dangerous for LGBTQ+ advocates to be speaking in public, engaging youth, and making our presence known even online. This is why we need our cisgender and straight allies to show up and be present.

As it is Pride Month in June, our colleagues and team are here to remind our partners that our communities need each of us to be prepared to fight together against anti-LGBTQ+ hate and bigotry. We need the support of all projects during these trying times to help us reach the Tobacco Endgame for all LGBTQ+ Communities.

Join We Breathe at the monthly CTPP LGBTQ+ Advocates and Allies Space held every Third Tuesday of the month. Reach out to We Breathe at roda@health-access.org for any questions!