Smoking is killing our community. Every year, tobacco-related diseases take more than 30,000 LGBT lives. In Washington, D.C., smoking is responsible for approximately 800 deaths every year, with a disproportionate number of those deaths coming from the LGBT community. Nearly 25 percent of LGBT adults in the United States smoke, compared to only about 17 percent of straight adults.
Among those living with HIV/AIDS, tobacco use is even more prevalent. It is estimated that as many as 70 percent of people with HIV use tobacco and are two- to three-times more likely to smoke cigarettes than people without HIV.
Because HIV hinders the body’s ability to fight off infection or disease, smokers with HIV are more prone to both HIV-related infections (such as Thrush, white mouth sores, and pneumonia) and fatal tobacco-related illnesses (such as COPD, heart disease and stroke, and cancer). In fact, the life expectancy of a 35-year-old smoker with HIV is cut by nearly eight years because of smoking.
Smoking also negatively impacts anti-retroviral therapy (ART) for HIV patients. According to a study published in AIDS, smoking doubles the risk of death for someone with HIV on ART.
Higher rates of smoking in the LGBT community can be attributed to a wide range of factors, including coping with the added stress of societal prejudices. Unfortunately, many of the places meant to be safe havens for LGBT individuals and those with HIV are actually the main battlegrounds for fighting smoking. The tobacco industry has targeted LGBT individuals and people with HIV for 25 years, advertising at LGBT community events, including Pride, and even giving money to both national and local LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations.
Surveys have found that two-thirds of smokers with HIV want to quit, but they need more resources to do so long-term. With the highest rates of HIV in the country, the District should take heed.
This year, the D.C. Tobacco Free Coalition, the D.C. Department of Health, and more than 40 community organizations are coming together to battle smoking as part of D.C. Calls It Quits Week, Sept. 19-25. But more help is needed to help D.C. smokers quit and save LGBT lives from tobacco-related diseases.
First, policymakers and providers should make every effort to reach out to the LGBT community to work with them to raise awareness about the connection between HIV and smoking. Better education for the LGBT community on the specific dangers of smoking while being HIV positive would help discourage tobacco use among patients.
Counseling and treatment to quit smoking should also be integrated into all HIV patients’ treatment programs, including both physical and mental health. We know that smokers with HIV who receive counseling and treatment to quit smoking, in conjunction with ART or mental health treatment, are more likely to successfully quit smoking than when attempting to quit on their own.
Finally, access to resources to quit smoking must be made available for every D.C. resident with HIV. If you are a smoker in D.C., call 1-800-Quit-Now (784-8669).
David Mariner is executive director of the D.C. LGBT Community Center.