While the youth smoking rate has now dropped to a record low of 6 percent, that number does not tell the whole story. Tobacco use disproportionately affects many marginalized populations—including people in low-income communities, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBT individuals and those with mental illness—who have a long and documented history of being targeted by the tobacco industry.

It’s common for LGBT individuals to experience disparities that stem from social stigma and discriminatory treatment. On top of that, there is a different kind of disparity in the LGBT community that is often overlooked: disproportionately high smoking rates.

Overall, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults smoke at rates up to 2.5 times higher than straight adults, due in part to targeted marketing by Big Tobacco. For years the tobacco industry has made efforts to appeal to LGBT consumers through things like targeted advertisements in LGBT press, cigarette giveaways and free tobacco industry merchandise. Today, the LGBT community is among the hardest hit by tobacco.

Smoking rates in the LGBT community

According to a 2011 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, researchers “face a number of challenges in understanding the health needs of LGBT populations.” There are limited national data available regarding tobacco use among the LGBT community. Data that are available, however, indicate that the LGBT community is disproportionately impacted by tobacco:

Even though youth smoking rates overall are down to 6 percent, smoking rates among LGB youth are estimated to be considerably higher than those among youth in general, based on an analysis of data from 1987 to 2000. More than twice as many LGB students in grades nine through 12 have smoked a cigarette before the age of 13, compared to their heterosexual peers. LGB students also smoke more frequently. Digging even deeper, lesbian and bisexual girls are 9.7 times more likely to smoke cigarettes regularly, compared to their heterosexual peers.

Big Tobacco’s Long History of Targeting the LGBT Community

As the LGBT community gained more social and political acceptance, especially in the 1990s, marketers took notice. Industry documents show that tobacco companies were aware of high smoking rates among sexual minorities, and marketing plans show their efforts to take advantage of the emerging LGBT market.

For example, one tobacco industry document in 1997 stated: “A large percentage of Gays and Lesbians are smokers. In order to increase brand share and brand awareness … it is imperative to identify new markets with growth potential.”

Big Tobacco has targeted the LGBT community since at least 1991, when tobacco company Philip Morris settled a boycott by pledging large donations to AIDS research and programs. The boycott, led by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, protested the company’s support of Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), a leading opponent of AIDS funding and LGBT civil rights. Using corporate philanthropy as evidence of its support of the LGBT community, Philip Morris quickly gained access to the market, leading the way for other tobacco companies to follow suit.

Tobacco companies also began to advertise in "gay press" publications in the early 1990s, often depicting tobacco use as a “normal” part of LGBT life. Many ads for products other than cigarettes glamorized smoking, and many articles having nothing to do with smoking were shown with tobacco images.

In 1995, the tobacco company, R.J. Reynolds, created a marketing strategy called “Project SCUM” (Sub-Culture Urban Marketing) to boost cigarette sales by targeting vulnerable groups, including LGBT and homeless individuals, especially with advertisements and displays placed in communities and stores. On top of donations, giveaways and increased advertising, the tobacco industry made community outreach efforts, such as hosting local promotions like “LGBT bar nights” featuring specific cigarette brands.

For more information on the disproportionate effect tobacco has on certain populations, including racial minorities, low-income communities and those with mental illness, read the Achieving Health Equity report.

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