Corey Prachniak is an LGBT rights, HIV policy, and healthcare attorney. He serves on the Steering Committee of the Network for LGBT Health Equity and tweets @LGBTadvocacy.
This morning at the National Press Club in Washington, the Food and Drug Administration unveiled a $115 million anti-smoking campaign aimed at youths – the first-ever such campaign in the FDA’s history. Commissioner of Food and Drugs, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, explained that the effort would specifically target “on-the-cusp youth smokers,” aged 12 to 17, who either had recently begun smoking or who were open-minded to trying it.
Mitch Zeller, Director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products, noted that when compared to regular smokers, these “at risk teens are even harder to reach because they don’t even see themselves as smokers.” Instead, they believe that they are only casual users who will not get hooked.
I had the opportunity to ask the panel about their plan to prevent smoking among LGBT youths. Much as Director Zeller noted that at risk youths don’t consider themselves smokers, many youths might not consider themselves LGBT, and are instead are still processing how they feel or working on coming out.
Responding to my question, the Center’s Director of the Office of Health Communication and Education, Kathy Crosby, said, “We understand that there are sensitivities and we understand that there are cultural issues, as well,” in reaching LGBT teens. Crosby noted that while the campaign on the whole targeted youths aged 12 to 17, they will launch a subsequent LGBT campaign that may instead focus on 17 to 18-year-olds who are more likely to identify as LGBT. The hope is that by targeting that subgroup, the message will trickle down to younger teens who are entering the LGBT community.
Ms. Crosby noted that this LGBT sub-campaign is still in the initial stages of development, and will likely take one to two years to take off. Director Zeller added that the LGBT effort will have “similar themes” to the broader campaign being launched this month, but will be “more targeted” to LGBT youths.
Directing anti-smoking efforts at LGBT youths is necessary given that the LGBT community has long been a target of tobacco corporations – and has disproportionately high rates of tobacco use to show for it. According to research recently compiled by the Network, LGBT people smoke at a rate that is 68% higher than the population as a whole. Although the LGBT community spends $7.9 billion – with a “b” – on tobacco products each year, crucial Surgeon General reports on smoking did not even mention LGBT people until a 2001 document entitled “Women and Smoking.”
The new FDA campaign, entitled “The Real Cost,” will “highlight the real costs and health consequences of tobacco use” by focusing on things that young people care about, such as outward appearance and having control over their lives, said Commissioner Hamburg. The FDA’s research – which will continue for two years as they track 8,000 teens exposed to the ad campaign – revealed that these concerns are more relevant to young people than are long-term consequences, such as heart and lung health, that seem too distant to be real threats.
“It’s different than what we’ve heard before,” said youth activist Daniel Giuffra, “and I think teens will respond to this.” By using social media in addition to traditional media buys, Mr. Giuffra believes the campaign will “get a conversation started, something we haven’t been able to do before.”
It is a conversation that the LGBT community – and their advocates – desperately need to have.