Tobacco and Queer People

by Blake Montgomery, ’14

Gay MarlboroAIDS kills 17,000 queer people in America per year. Tobacco-related diseases kill 30,000. I’d call both epidemics.

In 2009, the American Cancer Society found that 59% of queer youth smoke, as compared with 35% of heterosexual youth. Gurl, what?

As young people, we are at the forefront of anti-tobacco efforts. The peak ages of smoking, as measured by the CDC, is 23 to 25. Our choices matter more than any others to the tobacco industry because most of us are first-time smokers, “learners” as we are referred to in industry documents. We’re also known as “replacers” in industry-speak because we take the place of older smokers who are dying of lung diseases.

Tobacco marketers have cast the hazards of cigarettes as old news for our demographic. They’re not. They’re the biggest cause of preventable death in queer populations and in America at large. Why are we at such high risk?

In a landmark 2009 data review, the American Lung Association found that lesbians have a smoking rate twice that of straight women and gay men have a smoking rate of 1.5 times that of straight men. Bisexual people’s smoking rates were the highest of any group surveyed, ranging from twice to three times those of straight men and women. Data on transgender people in the study was limited to California, where the ALA found that 30% of transgender people smoke.

Tobacco companies are increasing their marketing efforts to youth without access to education because of hyper-education in demographics like Stanford. We students know the afflictions of smoking, but some of us smoke anyway. We see it as not our problem. Those questionable decisions aside, low-income schools lack the funding for tobacco control education and in many cases will take direct tobacco sponsorships because the need for extra money is so dire, leaving their students at a health disadvantage.

The tobacco industry’s furthers its marketing push to youth by reaching outside of schools to another low-income demographic: homeless youth. With up to 40% of homeless youth identifying as LGBT, anti-tobacco efforts work to alleviate the issues facing critical intersections of identities.

LGBT American Spirit

What can we do about this?

We can choose not to smoke.

We can demand that Stanford ban the sale of cigarettes on campus. Change begins in our communities, and the University can’t continue to commercially endorse an industry responsible for so many deaths and so much poisonous misinformation. Eventually, we can get a smoke-free campus like Berkeley and all the other schools in the UC system.

Cigarette companies have been sponsoring anti-AIDS organizations for decades. Japan Tobacco secured FDA approval for a new combination drug just last year. Can we talk about that irony? An industry that kills more people than a CDC-certified epidemic sponsoring health organizations?

Tobacco was one of the first major American industries to advertise specifically to LGBT people, beginning with gay men in the magazine Genre. RJ Reynolds (think Camel, Kool, Winston, and Salem cigarettes, among others) was the most notable for this in their development of Project SCUM, a marketing plan for the “alternative lifestyles” of San Francisco. SCUM stands for “subculture urban marketing,” i.e. catering to queer people, Afro-Americans, the homeless, and low-income people. We’re scum to the industry? Profitable scum?

We need to work against being an industry target. Challenge smoking when you see it. Challenge it if you smoke. Challenge it interpersonally and systematically as you would any other threat to queer health and wellbeing. Challenge it when you see it in a movie. In advertising. Much like other issues we face, it is institutional and ingrained. Change won’t happen without each of us standing against this toxic habit.

If you smoke as a way to cope with stress, please consider a less destructive mechanism. Also consider that smoking causes long-term stress levels to rise rather than fall. Take long-term gratification over short-term. An acquaintance recently defended his smoking as something he only does when under pressure, both from work and the aggression of the world at large, “and besides, I don’t want to be old anyway.” What? Invest in your own health.

If you smoke only when you’re drunk, as many of my friends have told me in defense of their smoking, please consider that the tobacco industry has created the association with alcohol through marketing. They’ve created associations between tobacco and music, coffee, stress, dieting, being cool and so many other things through brilliant marketing. Do not allow these associations to persuade you because that is falling prey to one of the world’s biggest corporate predators.

We see smoking as a natural and ubiquitous human activity only because the tobacco industry has made it so. Smoking’s only been widespread for a century, and we can start its end. Let’s start the abolition of smoking by banning its sale at Stanford. In the future we may be smoke-free.


American Cancer Society:

What Makes an ad a Cigarette ad? Commercial Tobacco Imagery in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Press:

American Lung Association:

For more activist opportunities and information, check out the National LGBT Tobacco Control Network at

I’m conducting research into attitudes towards tobacco use on Stanford campus. Would you mind filling out this quick survey? It will provide useful data for my work.



Blake Montgomery is a senior majoring in English working on tobacco policy research this summer. Tell him when you took your last drag at

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3 thoughts on “Tobacco and Queer People

  1. Casey says:

    If you smoke and put your health at risk, that’s your problem, not anyone else’s. No one is forcing you to smoke. Banning the sale of cigarettes on campus is stupid, because buying cigarettes doesn’t harm anyone. However, ban smoking in public because of the dangers of second hand smoke. A more effective approach to reducing smoking would be to educate people more about the dangers of smoking. If you try to ban smoking without addressing the underlying causes of why people smoke, people will still find ways to smoke.

  2. Miranda says:


  3. Some Girl says:

    As someone who’s a onetime drunk/stressed out smoker, this piece comes at a rather timely moment. I’ve been super anxious today and was craving a cigarette like mad. I was out walking without my wallet and in a neighborhood where nobody smokes, so I tried instead to take a long, slow deep breath as if through a straw, hold it…and exhale. Boom. Anxiety reduced instantly.

    I imagine you’re going to get some pushback on this piece, but I think you’re totally right. Smoking is incredibly lethal, yet our campus culture tends to view it as a cool, artsy, kind of alternative activity. It isn’t. It’s dangerous as fuck.

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