Quitters Do Win

Diverse and Resilient partners with OutReach on “Room to Breathe,” a solution to help us stop smoking. Amber Ault reports.

Diverse and Resilient partners with OutReach on “Room to Breathe,” a solution to help us stop smoking. Amber Ault reports.

Although an LGBT community can never have too many “flamers”, it can have too many smokers for its own good, if you ask Gary Hollander, Ph.D., the Executive Director of the statewide LGBT non-profit organization Diverse and Resilient. Hollander is the driving force behind the new Wisconsin LGBT anti-smoking campaign, “Room to Breathe,” and he is on a mission.

“We started asking LGBT folks what they thought were the health issues in our communities,” Hollander says, “and then we surveyed 3,000 people over the course of two years. What we learned is that LGBT folks are smoking at twice the rate of their heterosexual peers. That rate results in 6,900 years of life lost every single year, not to mention $290 million dollars a year in health care costs.”

Surprised? You’re not alone. “When we tell people these statistics, they fall over,” reports Steve Starkey, the director of Outreach Inc. in Madison, which serves as the hub for Room to Breathe’s local activities. Reliable population statistics for LGBT folks are notoriously difficult to secure; yet the patterns in Diverse and Resilient’s community-based convenience samples are confirmed by the findings of the state’s Behavioral Risk Factor Survey: about 40% of Wisconsin’s LGBT population lights up, compared to 20% of its straight folks.

What gives, beyond our tendency to do things big? Hollander offers an explanation centered on three variables. First, he says, there’s been a significant marketing of tobacco products to queer folks. Second, he notes, resources have not been devoted to smoking cessation in our community to counteract the success of that marketing. Finally, and perhaps most significant, is the impact of what he calls “minority stress.”

In his words, “people who experience more discrimination in the world experience lower self-esteem and lower self-esteem increases risk behavior.” Steve Starkey offers up another term to account for the killer rates of smoking in LGBT communities: “Oppression.”

“Room to Breathe,” Hollander explains, “is about informing people that this isn’t your fault. You’re a good person, but you need to take care of it because it’s killing you.” He notes that while addiction to cigarettes is a “personal crisis” for each individual, its cumulative effects constitute a community health crisis for the LGBT population. Because of that, Room to Breathe has two goals: first, to assist people who want to quit and, second, to change norms around smoking.

To achieve those goals, the program, which is funded for three years by a grant from UW School of Medicine & Public Health Wisconsin Partnership program, incorporates a range of strategies. Six different sites around the state will offer various elements of the program. Three locations will have eight-week, field-tested “Quit Groups” for people intending to quit; these and others will also make “Quit Buddies” available as mentors to people trying to break the habit. Room to Breathe has the resources to provide people with free nicotine replacement for two weeks, and has trained the smoking cessation specialists on the Wisconsin “quitline” in the unique needs of LGBT community members, so that we’ll feel welcomed if we call.

Starkey anticipates that the OutReach quit group will start up in January or February, though Quit Buddies are already ready to support those getting a jump on their New Year’s resolutions. People interested in exploring the resources in their part of the state can check out Room to Breathe on the web at http://www. rm2breathe.org/programs.asp. Madisonians interested in taking advantage of the program’s support and expertise can contact Outreach Inc at (608) 255-8582. Hollander hopes to see these programs assist 500 smokers in the quest to quit in the next three years, and expects that to make a real and lasting difference in the health of the LGBT communities of Wisconsin.

Now, put that in your pipe—just remember not to smoke it.