Clearing the air: getting gay folks talking about tobacco

photo of Rowsom and Sampath in front of a series of posters designed by the Public Studio

Queer people smoke tobacco at over double the rates of the general population, according to a new Toronto campaign. Experts pointto stigma, stress and targeted marketing campaigns towards queers as the cause—and they hope that by getting people talking, they can get people quitting.

That’s why members of Rainbow Health Ontario, Smoker’s Helpline and Toronto Public Health, along with design firm The Public, met last Wednesday to launch a province-wide media campaign, Clear the Air.

“We did a survey at Toronto pride and went around and asked LGBT folks if they smoked or not. […] 33 per cent of LGBT people were smokers compared to 15 per cent of the general population,” explains Donna Turner of Rainbow Health Ontario.

Turner says that the tobacco industry has used targeted marketing towards queers in the past. “For many, many years, big tobacco companies actually targeted the LGBTQ communities with their marketing,” she alleges. “They saw our communities as a potential weak link…and the possibility to get us more hooked.”

In the United States, 22 per cent of San Francisco LGBT organizations surveyed between 2002 and 2004 had accepted tobacco industry funding. “The leaders of those groups recognized that these donations were ideologically difficult to defend, but felt they were necessary to keep their programs solvent,” according to an American Lung Association report.

In the 90s, queer media outlets—often struggling to find revenue—were either ambivalent or outright supportive of tobacco advertisement opportunities. Jeff Yarbrough, then-editor of the Advocate, pointed to the challenge for queer media to turn down ads—they were “in a beggar’s position, rather than a chooser’s position.”

So ‘gay friendly’ ad campaigns gave tobacco products direct traction with the queer community.  The ALA and National LGBT Tobacco Control Network both profile an ad from American Spirit, which lists different “freedom[s]:”

“to speak. to choose. to marry. to participate. to be. to disagree. to inhale. to believe. to love. to live.

it’s all good.” (sic)

Turner hopes that Clear The Air will start a discussion about the way tobacco companies have pushed cigarettes in LGBT spaces. “I think when people realize that, they’ll feel like they want to fight back a little bit.”

A myriad of other factors can also contribute to tobacco use, including stigma, homophobia, and increased levels of stress. A bar-focused queer scene leaves many using tobacco as a social tool; fear of homophobic or transphobic health care providers can lead to avoidance, which may leave queer people less likely to discuss their options around quitting with a health care provider. For Turner, the first step is talking to queer people about how to fight addiction in a way that doesn’t shut them out.

“The evidence is pretty clear that smoking causes all sorts of health problems,” she says. “Our communities are going to have higher rates of those health problems as well.”

Sheila Sampath is creative director/principal for The Public, which handled the creative design of the campaign. Sampath saw failures in traditional anti-smoking messages, which she thinks “lack…acknowledgement of the reasons that drive people to smoke in the first place.”

“We thought that it would be good to address those head on talking about how identifying as LGBTQ marginalizes you…and also kind of talk about that being a motivation…to quit,” Sampath says. “The answer to both of those questions is because of our identity, because of our community, we’re driven to smoke but we’re also inspired to quit.”

Check out the campaign at <a href=> If you’d like to quit smoking, you can talk to a real person about your options at or call 1 877 513-5333.

An alternate version of this article originally appeared at

One Response to “Clearing the air: getting gay folks talking about tobacco”
  1. Ben says:

    My experience is that I would go to gay bars to meet people, but felt more comfortable socializing outside when on a smoke break.

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