A local victory against Big Tobacco
by Brian Davis
Silicon Valley Pride is coming up this weekend, and there are many things to celebrate this year, including a victory for the LGBT community over Big Tobacco in San Jose.
For many years, tobacco company representatives regularly visited bars in that city, including frequent visits to at least one gay bar/club with a young clientele. During 2013 and 2014 alone, just one tobacco company scheduled 564 visits to bars in San Jose with 25 percent of those visits to that gay bar. At the bars, the tobacco representatives would swipe people's I.D.s through a machine that captured all of their information. In exchange they would hand out discount coupons including a "One Pack for One Buck" offer that could only be redeemed at the bar that night.
Over 100 studies have shown that offers like these make it easier to start and harder to quit smoking – the higher the price, the less likely that young adults will become smokers.
During recent months, the tobacco representatives had begun to offer free electronic cigarettes as well, encouraging our young adults to get addicted to nicotine without ever smoking a traditional cigarette.
The good news is that as of July 10, this activity is now illegal in San Jose.
You may be wondering why this is a big deal for LGBT people. The reason is that we smoke more – a lot more than everyone else. According to a community survey conducted by the health department in 2013, LGBT people in Santa Clara County smoke three times as much as the general population of that county. This kind of disparity is not unusual.
Why do we smoke more? The short answer is that the stresses of homophobia and transphobia during our youth drive us to look for a way to escape, and many escape through tobacco. Big Tobacco knows this, which is why they target us with major discounts, advertisements, sponsorships, and other means. It's tough to fight back against Big Tobacco's deep pockets, but this time we succeeded.
This victory happened because of a two-year campaign led by community leaders like Gabrielle Antolovich, the board president of the Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center. She shared the following thoughts:
"It was a great campaign to promote LGBTQ health in San Jose and to remember a gay bar is not just where people do negative things to themselves – it actually is a positive environment to be your gay self, meet people in a safe LGBTQ location, safely flirt, network, and make friends. It is only fair to keep the place safe from tobacco temptations, the smell, and promote the long-term health of our community. I was also heartened by the overwhelming support we had from the San Jose City Council, who so eloquently spoke to our issues and passed the ordinance."
Cassie Blume, the program coordinator at the LGBTQ Youth Space in San Jose, was another active participant in the campaign.
"Addressing the health and wellness disparities faced by queer and transgender people is a constant struggle," Blume said. "We need education, community building and resources. At the LGBTQ Youth Space and in our new LGBTQ wellness program we celebrate policies, like these, that prioritize our health and safety. This local success is all the more meaningful as it was won with the support and advocacy of our friends on the City Council and our coalition partners – allies who truly understand and seek to advance change regarding our communities' most pressing health concerns."
Much more work remains to be done. Gay bars in Sacramento, West Hollywood, and communities all over the country continue to be visited by tobacco company representatives offering extreme discounts on cigarettes and free e-cigarettes that addict our youth to tobacco products.
There is also work to be done in our own backyard. The Just for Us: LGBT Tobacco Prevention Project, based at Tri-City Health Center in Fremont, is now working in our home city to protect LGBT and other youth from tobacco company targeting. Tri-City Health Center is the home of TransVision, a program that provides services to the transgender community in the East Bay. That community smokes at extremely high rates due to the enormous transphobia in our culture. It's time for action to protect our home base.
One of the ways that tobacco companies make it easier for young people to smoke is by selling "little cigars," which often look just like cigarettes, except that they are wrapped in a tobacco leaf instead of paper, for less than $1. Cigarettes are legally required to be sold in packs of 20 or more, and flavorings that appeal to kids – like cherry and bubble gum – are banned. Little cigars face no such restrictions, and kids are using them to get hooked on tobacco.
We are working to raise awareness of issues like these in Fremont. One way we are doing this is by building a team of LGBT and LGBT-allied youth to educate our local community and fight for change. A similar group of engaged youth was at the forefront of the successful campaign in San Jose.
Our youth are leading the way to end homophobia and transphobia in so many ways, including working to undo the damage inflicted upon us by years of discrimination. Join us.
Brian Davis runs Just for Us: LGBT Tobacco Prevention Project at the Tri-City Health Center in Fremont.