Smoke-free bars have broad support

  • by Brian Davis
  • Wednesday May 22, 2013
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Brian Davis(Photo: Courtesy Brian Davis)<br><br><br><br><br><br><br>
Brian Davis(Photo: Courtesy Brian Davis)

The LGBT community smokes cigarettes about twice as much as the general population.

Why do we smoke so much more? Research shows that the stress of homophobia leads to higher smoking rates. Homophobia leads to higher drinking, illegal drug use and suicide rates as well, but the difference is that our community is addressing these other issues, while the epidemic of smoking is largely ignored, despite the fact that tobacco kills more people nationally than AIDS, alcohol, illegal drugs, suicide, murder, and traffic accidents combined.

Although this fact from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides valuable perspective, it should not lead to a "my disease is worse than yours" competition. We need to find ways to work together to fight the common enemy and help the LGBT community become the healthy, powerful force it deserves to be.

My new position at Tri-City Health Center in Fremont offers an opportunity to begin to build that unity. My new workplace primarily provides two services: an HIV/AIDS clinic and a transgender support center (called TransVision). Working together we can help protect people from HIV and support the transgender community, which faces the most oppression of all.

My project, Just for Us – LGBT Tobacco Prevention Project, can help meet those goals, as HIV-positive smokers develop full blown AIDS and die more often and more quickly than HIV-positive non-smokers, and since transgender women face a greater risk of blood clots if they smoke and take hormones. All of our community health organizations can only benefit by adding a tobacco component.

Homophobia has led to a general lack of queer competency in the health care system (making us less likely to seek medical support for quitting), has historically limited our meeting places largely to bars and clubs (where smoking is often legal on patios and some indoor spaces), and has led to Big Tobacco targeting our community with advertising that takes advantage of our vulnerability.

Tobacco ads aimed at us have implied that smoking and accepting an LGBT identity are both "choices" (when smoking is hardly a choice for the 70 percent of smokers who want to quit), and suggested that tobacco companies support our struggle for equality (while giving the lion's share of their political donations to right-wing politicians).

Clearly, the struggle against homophobia is also the struggle against the bane of tobacco use in our community. As acceptance of LGBT people grows, we will hopefully see a reduction in smoking and other destructive behaviors, but we can't afford to sit back and wait for society to change. We need to take action now if we are going to save lives.

One important place where that needs to happen is at the bars and clubs where we build our community. Fortunately, we have made progress in recent years, but there is still much work to do to reduce our exposure to Big Tobacco's influence and create environments that encourage smokers to quit and protect all of us from secondhand smoke.

May 31 is World No Tobacco Day, a yearly day of recognition led by the World Health Organization that points out the impact of smoking worldwide. This year's theme is "Ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship." Many bars in Alameda County, such as the White Horse Inn on the Oakland-Berkeley border, have pledged not to allow tobacco discount coupons, other giveaways or advertising on its premises. Yet, there is at least one queer bar in San Jose that allows merchants of death to provide its patrons promotional offers that make it easier to start smoking and harder to quit.

There are now more smoke-free spaces in San Francisco than ever before, including Jane Warner and Harvey Milk plazas as well as Cafe Flore's outdoor patio. QBar's former smoking room is now smoke-free. Pilsner Inn has expanded the smoke-free area of its patio and removed some of the ceiling to reduce secondhand smoke exposure. Powerhouse has removed most of the ceiling in its outdoor area, and the Cinch is limiting smoking to the back wall of its patio. Yet, as long as so many of our bars allow smoking, we will continue to find it hard to end the brutal assault on our bodies by nicotine and over 50 cancer causing chemicals.

We know that smoke on patios and in these smoking rooms is "unhealthy" (by EPA standards) because my last project measured it (partnering with UCSF). We know that every peer-reviewed study has shown that bars don't lose money when they go smoke-free, and often become more successful. We know that 80 percent of over 1,300 people we surveyed at Pride in 2011 want smoke-free patios.

Bars could be a complete force for good. Many of us like to go out and have a few drinks every now and then, myself included. But many of us can't stop drinking when we start. Do bar workers try to spot problem drinkers and cut them off? I don't know because I don't work on alcohol, but I hope they do. But unlike alcohol, tobacco can't be used safely. It is a product that enslaves and increases the risk of death for the user – social smokers included.

It's time for all LGBT people to start working together to end the scourge of homophobia and the effect it has on all of our lives – including the destructive impact of tobacco. Let's start now to build the community we all deserve.


Brian Davis runs Just for Us – LGBT Tobacco Prevention Project with the Tri-City Health Center in Fremont. For more information on World No Tobacco Day, visit