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A New Gay Epidemic -- And What You Can Do to End It

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The new gay epidemic is an old one. It's killing your gay friends and family, and it's totally preventable. No, it's not what you may be thinking. It's not HIV/AIDS. I'm talking about smoking.

Last week was LGBT Health Awareness Week, so this is good time to bring up a LGBT health crisis that many ignore or minimize.

According to the American Lung Association, gay men are approximately 2.5 times more likely to smoke, and lesbians are about twice as likely as their straight counterparts. Most everyone knows that smoking is the leading preventable cause of death. That's true for everyone, including LGBT Americans.

There's not a physical reason why gay people smoke more, but there are some unique factors that contribute to the higher rate of smoking.

For decades, the gay community has socialized and interacted in smoking venues such as bars. For a long time, gay bars were the only place for LGBT people to find others like them. It's still a big part of gay culture and socialization.

The American Lung Association also says that stress from social stigma and discrimination because of their sexual orientation is frequently cited as a reason that LGBT people start smoking. That's especially the case with young people, who have a much higher rate of smoking than their straight peers.

It's important for all of us, no matter who we are, to combat this epidemic within our own families and circles of friends. Understanding these unique pressures and risk factors can help us to urge our gay friends and family who are still smoking to stop.

Quitting smoking is hard. Everyone knows that. While giving it up "cold turkey" (ideally with some advice from a doctor) is the best and most effective way, it's just not possible for everyone. A wide range of pharmaceutical products -- everything from over-the-counter nicotine gum to prescription medicine -- can also help some people some of the time but also have very high failure rates particularly over the long term. Nicotine is addictive and quitting it is very, very hard.

For those who simply can't quit or don't want to there are products such as e-cigarettes and dissolvable smokeless tobacco that can help people with their addiction to nicotine without carrying the risks of smoking. These products are still addictive and certainly aren't "safe" overall. But they are still safer than smoking. It's the smoke that's the real killer.

It's time for everyone to get involved in combatting this epidemic. Gay and straight people alike, we all have people in our lives who smoke. Here are some important things to do and keep in mind when talking with the LGBT smokers in your life:

  1. The Bar Culture -- A lot of their friends are smokers and smoking is a social thing for many LGBT people. Planning fun social events and activities in non-smoking environments. Changing socialization patterns and habits is key to quitting.
  2. Sigma -- The stress of social stigma many LGBT people feel because of their sexual orientation cannot be discounted as a reason many turn to cigarettes. Be sensitive to this and don't ignore it when talking with your friends about why their life is worth saving by quitting.
  3. Tools for Quitting -- When quitting "cold turkey" has been tried and failed (it's always good to try this first, particularly since it's free), then suggest that they try other ways of quitting. Pharmaceuticals may help some people. Other forms of tobacco and other products can also help people stop smoking cigarettes. E-cigarettes, dissolvable smokeless tobacco and other products don't carry the risks that come with smoking although they're hardly healthy. Using them is better than smoking.

Smoking is a major killer in the LGBT community. Taking the right steps to reduce it can and will save lives.