Life

With Friends Like These

LGBTQ organizations shouldn’t celebrate the tobacco industry and its apologists.

Used cigarette butts in a dirty ashtray.
Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On March 20, the National LGBT Bar Association will host an “Out & Proud Corporate Counsel Award Reception” at the Altria Group office overlooking the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The $250-per-plate event celebrates legal professionals who promote LGBTQ equality and welcoming workplaces. This year, the LGBT Bar will honor Denise Keane, the former executive vice president and general counsel of Altria Group Inc., who recently retired after 40 years of “distinguished service” at Altria. Altria says that it values diversity and has received perfect scores from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.

Never mind that Altria owns tobacco companies like Phillip Morris USA, maker of Marlboro, the most-smoked cigarette brand in the United States and the world for more than 40 years. Never mind that tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, leading to more than 480,000 deaths annually—more deaths each year than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, and firearm-related incidents combined. Never mind that 10 times more U.S. citizens have died from cigarette smoking than from all the wars the U.S. has fought throughout our history. Worldwide, the annual death toll from tobacco is more than 7 million. Never mind the billions of dollars spent marketing these deadly products and fighting any regulation that restricts their use. Never mind the role of tobacco industry lawyers who manipulated attorney-client privilege to conceal sensitive documents from disclosure and employed litigation tactics to largely prevent successful lawsuits against their client companies. Never mind the 1,683-page opinion from Judge Gladys Kessler holding the tobacco companies liable for violating RICO by conspiring to fraudulently cover up the health risks associated with smoking and for marketing their products to children—and finding that they will continue to do so in the future.

On one hand, LGBTQ organizations might be tempted to celebrate acceptance from wherever it comes. However, this approach ignores the profound harm the tobacco industry inflicts on LGBTQ people. There have been few studies on smoking rates among transgender people, but the smoking rates of LGB adults are significantly higher than straight adults. About 1 in 6 straight adults smoke compared with nearly 1 in 4 LGB adults. LGB youth are twice as likely to smoke a cigarette before they turn 13 compared to their straight peers, and LGB students smoke more frequently. The cumulative result: More than 30,000 LGBTQ people die from smoking-related diseases each year—more than 80 a day. On June 12, 2016, 49 people were slaughtered in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in what was at the time the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Yet tobacco quietly killed more LGBTQ Americans even on that terrible day, and the deaths have continued every day since.

The disparately high rates of smoking are the result of aggressive marketing by tobacco companies that depict smoking as a normal part of gay life. Stigma, discrimination, social bonding, and bar culture may be contributing factors, but marketing creates the links between gay culture and cigarettes. In the late 1990s, R.J Reynolds launched “Project Scum,” a campaign to market Red Kamels to “alternative lifestyles” in San Francisco. Tobacco companies still sponsor events, buy booths at pride festivals, print advertisements in LGBTQ magazines, host bar promotions and giveaways. Cigarette displays shine bright on the gay bars, branded ashtrays on tables. This marketing is not a sign of acceptance. It’s a hate crime.

Major public health organizations have been sounding the alarm about health disparities between straight and LGBTQ smokers. American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, The Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Truth Initiative, and other public health groups have specific campaigns aimed at reducing LGBTQ tobacco use. Yet LGBTQ groups like the LGBT Bar Association seem reluctant to take up the fight.

Some of the resistance may come from the perceived need for charitable donations and funding. Altria’s total charitable donations in 2016 was barely $56 million, about a half-percent of the $10 billion net earnings last year. This includes token donations to Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute, Gay Pride Virginia, Equality Virginia, and Out and Equal Workplace Advocates. Altria is also a platinum sponsor of the LGBT Bar’s Out and Proud Reception and contributes more to their annual conference. On April 1, 2017, Equality Virginia hosted a 1,000-person gala in Richmond—giving Altria, the event’s primary sponsor, a chance to pinkwash their image while snuggling up with officials like Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Tim Kaine, and Reps. Donald McEachin and Bobby Scott. That event raised $300,000.

The irony is that LGBTQ Americans alone spend an estimated $7.9 billion on tobacco products annually—which is 65 times more money than pro-equality funders spend on all LGBTQ issues combined. Tobacco companies need the goodwill and open wallets of the LGBTQ community. It’s not the other way around.

The leaders of many LGBTQ organizations do not view tobacco control as a priority health issue. Many feel that smoking is central to the coming-out process. The Human Rights Campaign encourages partnerships with tobacco companies through its Corporate Equality Index, their rating of LGBTQ equality in workplaces. HRC’s rating system rewards tobacco companies for demonstrating “public commitment” to LGBTQ populations by marketing to LGBTQ consumers or philanthropic support of LGBTQ organization or events. These endorsements actively perpetuate the harms by normalizing Big Tobacco within the community and helping them retain talented employees.

There are signs of change. Ellen Kahn, director of the HRC Foundation’s children, youth and families program acknowledged that the “LGBTQ community needs to be educated about how they have been targeted.” Transgender rights activist and HRC Foundation Youth Ambassador Jazz Jennings appeared in a truth® video challenging the tobacco industry. Maybe, as with gun control, the youth will finally break the status quo.

LGBT HealthLink, an LGBTQ organization dedicated to reducing health disparities, has compiled a collection of interventions that would reduce tobacco use among the LGBTQ community. For example, educational campaign about the dangers of smoking should message directly to LGBTQ persons, like CDC’s “Tips from a Former Smoker” campaign that features real stories of people suffering from smoking-related diseases and disabilities. Tobacco cessation services should be as ubiquitous as a bowl of free condoms. LGBTQ community events and spaces should be free of tobacco smoke and tobacco marketing. Organizations should reject all tobacco money.

LGBTQ organizations continue to allow tobacco companies to pinkwash their own image with awards and partnerships. Meanwhile, other corporations have made positive steps to promote the health of the community. Both Target and CVS removed tobacco products from their shelves and maintain a perfect score on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index. Other organizations are quitting tobacco, too. There is plenty to celebrate. If the LGBT Bar Association needs lawyers to celebrate, consider the state and federal attorneys who forced the tobacco companies to admit the truth about their addictive products and made it harder for them to recruit next generation of LGBTQ “replacement smokers.”

Aaron Schwid is the legal director of policy and programs at Vital Strategies, an international public health organization. Previously, he served as senior legal adviser at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.