Columns » Queer & There

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

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When I was 17, I smoked my first cigarette in the woods behind Cheyenne Mountain High School. Dew from a light rain clung like sugar crystals to my girlfriend’s hair as we passed a Capri menthol between us. I leaned against a tree, the nicotine making me woozy.

That girlfriend, now my wife, quit smoking in 2018. As for me? Just this morning, I made my semiweekly stop at a nearby gas station, where the cashiers recognized me and set aside my pack before I even got to the register. My brand, American Spirit, costs $7.80 per pack, but I never think twice about shelling out the cash.

I started smoking consistently around the time I turned 18, mostly to help me cope with my anxiety, which went unmedicated for years. When I suffered from anorexia, I used cigarettes to control my weight and food cravings. Now, I don’t know what I get out of them. The habit dictates my schedule, defines my routines and controls my social life. I don’t want to know what it’s doing to my body; the Surgeon General’s warning proves startlingly ineffective when you have an addiction.

Many LGBTQ people like me have struggled with nicotine addiction because, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ours is a population that struggles with risk factors like mental illness, eating disorders, a desire to fit in, suicidal ideation and lack of health insurance, which forces a need to self-medicate.

Plus, the tobacco industry has made a targeted effort to attract the LGBTQ community for decades, with multiple tobacco companies such as Lucky Strike, Benson & Hedges and, most notably, Philip Morris, taking out ads in LGBTQ-specific press outlets, sponsoring LGBTQ events, and organizing philanthropic efforts that frame these companies as allies to the community.

Now, smoking isn’t the only source of nicotine addiction facing LGBTQ folks. Vaping has become increasingly attractive to an oft-ostracized subsection of kids and teens that want to look cool or be included in their peer groups.

Knowing how hard it can be to quit once the addiction starts, I want to grab these kids by the shoulders and shake them until they realize what they’re doing to themselves, even though it’s far more effective to treat addiction with compassion.

Thankfully, I’m not the one handling smoking cessation and prevention programs for LGBTQ youth in Colorado. Six Colorado-based organizations (Inside Out Youth Services, Colorado Health Network, the Gender Identity Center of Colorado, Out Boulder, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains and Four Corners Alliance for Diversity) have formed the LGBT Wellness Coalition, which addresses LGBTQ tobacco and nicotine use.

Jessie Pocock, executive director of Inside Out Youth Services, says, “We have a lot of focus on smoking. It’s something that it seems like not a lot of people are focused on anymore. And yet, it’s highly impacting the health of our community.”

The coalition is still in its first year, but over the course of its three-year program it plans to collect data from across the state, while offering trainings to address root causes of tobacco use. “So we convened and then we created a plan for, I mean, simple things like what are policy changes that we can have at our site that will discourage smoking?” Pocock also mentions a plan to collect surveys on both youth and adult tobacco use at this year’s Colorado Springs PrideFest.

Meanwhile, Inside Out youths have joined UpRISE, a youth-driven anti-tobacco initiative focused on social justice solutions to the tobacco crisis. These kids are combating addiction before it even starts, and giving old addicts like me a bit of hope.

For now, Pocock says the most encouraging result of the LGBT Wellness Coalition’s work has been conversation. “What I’m seeing is people becoming comfortable to talk about difficult things, right?” Pocock says. “Like, underage use of tobacco or things that they’re seeing in their peer groups. And talking about, okay, this is what’s going on. What can we do? How can we be supportive?”

If, like me, you’re going to need some help to kick your habit, visit COquitline.org for some Colorado-based resources.

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