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FDA Launches Campaign that Affirms LGBT Young Adults’ Freedom to Be, Tobacco Free

FDAThisFreeLife - group shot - May 2016 - cropped

(Left -Right) Jameelah Lee, campaign participant; Dr. Scout, LGBT HealthLink; Kathy Crosby, FDA; Mitch Zeller, FDA; Rich Wolitski, HHS/OHAIDP

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in the launch of “This Free Life,” the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new anti-smoking campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young adults. This is FDA’s first-ever national campaign designed to prevent and reduce tobacco use among LGBT young adults (ages 18-24) who are occasional smokers. I was blown away by the campaign’s affirming approach that recognizes and builds on the strengths, hopes, and resilience of our nation’s LGBT young adults. It is truly a groundbreaking effort.

Tobacco Use a Serious Health Concern in LGBT Community

As a member of the HHS LGBT Health Issues Committee, one of my responsibilities is to support the department in strengthening our nation’s capacity to address health disparities faced by the LGBT community, and that most certainly includes health issues caused by tobacco use. As most people know, smoking contributes to a range of negative health outcomes, such as cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illness. In fact, tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the United States.

What is less commonly understood is that smoking is even more of a problem for the LGBT population. That’s because LGBT young adults are nearly twice as likely to use tobacco as other young adults. As a consequence, each year tens of thousands of LGBT lives are lost to tobacco use. Further, of the more than 2 million young adults ages 18-24 who identify as LGBT in the United States, more than 800,000 smoke occasionally – that’s 40%! So a campaign to prevent them from engaging in this harmful health behavior could be lifesaving.

“We know LGBT young adults in this country are nearly twice as likely to use tobacco as other young adults,” said Mitch Zeller, J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “We want LGBT young adults to know that there is no safe amount of smoking. Even an occasional cigarette can have serious health implications and lead to addiction.”

FDAThisFreeLife - cropped May 2016“This Free Life” Campaign

This Free Life” uses a blend of digital, print, outdoor signage, and events in local communities to engage young LGBT adults. It showcases tobacco-free behaviors and attitudes within the LGBT community and speaks with an authentic voice that is grounded in the realities of young people’s lives. It shows LGBT young adults they can be the person they want to be, and still live tobacco-free. The messages, videos, and other materials from the campaign are incredibly affirming. They feature young people that represent the true diversity of our community.  Their positive focus builds on the strengths and resilience of LGBT young adults. This approach is different in so many ways from a lot of health education efforts for this same population that, too often, focus on risks or deficits. Drag Race fans (like me) will be pleased to see some fan favorites in one of the ads Exit Disclaimer that communicates serious information about the ugly side effects of smoking in a unique and engaging way.

The new campaign is part of the FDA’s ongoing efforts to prevent death and disease caused by tobacco use and will complement the agency’s at-risk youth education campaigns. The $35.7 million “This Free Life” campaign is funded by user fees collected from the tobacco industry, not by taxpayer dollars.

Smoking and People Living with HIV

Just as in the LGBT community, smoking rates are disproportionately high among people living with HIV. According to CDC data, 42% of adults living with HIV were current smokers compared to about 21% of the general public.  Unfortunately, smoking cigarettes can intensify the health risks of HIV, even for people who have their condition well controlled.  Smoking increases the chances of heart disease, cancer, serious lung diseases and infections, which are all conditions that those with HIV are more vulnerable to developing. So quitting smoking—or never starting—may be one of the most important steps toward better health that a person living with HIV can take.

Read more about the campaign.