Next Sunday, March 8, marks the beginning of National LGBT Health Awareness Week. This annual observance is meant, in part, as a “shout-out” to LGBT individuals, their allies and healthcare professionals to raise awareness about the health issues and challenges that specifically impact us. There is a growing body of evidence that LGBT populations face health disparities, directly or indirectly, as a result of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. These disparities occur over a range of health topics, including higher rates of HIV infection and AIDS, to homophobia and victimization, even increased risk for certain types of cancer.
The reasons for this are still open to debate, but most health planners agree that societal pressures play a key role. Whether through inhibiting patients from being “out” to their doctor or healthcare professional, creating barriers to accessing quality nonjudgmental care, receiving inadequate health screenings or certain behavioral habits of LGBT populations, all contribute to these disparities.
For example, a 2004 California study showed that LGBT individuals are 40-70-percent more likely to smoke than their non-LGBT counterparts. Another study suggests that number may be even higher, as much as 200 percent. With tobacco the number-one cause of mortality in this country, it stands to reason that the overall health of LGBT communities will be disproportionately impacted by tobacco-related illness and deaths.
A key goal of the upcoming LGBT Health Awareness Week is to empower LGBT communities around our own health and positively impact health outcomes in our communities. Quit-smoking programs geared toward the LGBT community are a prime example of how this “empowerment” can be a catalyst to improving health.
Still, as anyone who has ever tried can attest, there is a powerful resistance to quit smoking. This is due chiefly to the highly addictive nature of nicotine. Withdrawal symptoms kick in very quickly, driving people back to more nicotine use (i.e. smoking). So when smokers blame a lack of “willpower” for their difficulty in quitting, they’re really talking about a physical and psychological addiction to nicotine. Willpower is not something you are born with, but rather it’s a learned response that comes from a combination of planning and persistence.
Other “reasons” smokers may cite for not quitting include the following:
— “I’m afraid I’ll be cranky when I quit smoking.” Very possibly. Withdrawal from nicotine can cause irritability. Various types of nicotine-replacement therapy, such as patches, gum, lozenges or inhalers, can all lessen the effects of withdrawal and take the “edge” off. Quitting smoking is hard enough, but there are proven methods to lessen the discomfort.
— “I’m afraid I will gain weight.” An increased appetite is another symptom of nicotine withdrawal. In an attempt to feed the addiction, many people substitute food for nicotine. However, gaining weight need not be an effect of quitting. Like quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy diet and a regular exercise regimen takes practice and support. Many quit-smoking programs are now putting an emphasis on handling stress (a huge trigger for smoking) and developing and practicing healthy eating habits. So instead of choosing between being smoke-free or staying at a healthy weight, an individual can now learn how to achieve both.
— “I’m afraid I’ll fail, so what’s the point in trying?” This is a common refrain among many who have tried repeatedly to quit but still find themselves smoking. After a while, they may begin to feel defeated and see themselves as unsuccessful. But looked at another way, a person who tries to quit smoking time after time is really revealing his or her commitment to quitting smoking and eventual success. Studies show it takes, on average, five to seven tries before someone actually quits. So stay positive and don’t beat yourself up if you slip up. It’s been proven that each single quit attempt moves you closer to success.
— “I want to quit, but now just doesn’t feel like the right time.” If you’ve caught yourself saying this, you’re not alone. Any number of issues can arise that may push quitting smoking off the top of your priority list. Chipping away at your debt, starting an exercise routine, losing weight, getting a new job, all of these things may be taking precedence in your life, and you think to yourself, “As soon as I take care of x, y or z, I’ll quit smoking.” The truth is, there is no magic day or moment to quit. Quitting smoking all starts with the desire to quit, and then getting the support you need to help you achieve your goal to be smoke-free. Things will always come up in life. But if quitting smoking is really something you want, then go for it. There’s no time like now.
— “Smoking helps me feel less stressed out.” Handling stress is often cited by smokers as a reason they smoke and, interestingly, stressful situations are one of the top reasons people give who have relapsed after having quit. The unfortunate truth is, smoking cigarettes actually does relieve some of the stress you may be experiencing by releasing powerful chemicals (epinephrine, dopamine, beta-endorphin, to name a few) that are involved in the reduction of both anxiety and pain. This is the physiologic explanation for why it can feel good to smoke.
But the bigger truth is, it was you who solved whatever problems or stressors came your way, not the cigarette. By knowing the causes of stress in your life, identifying your personal “stress signals” (headaches, nervousness or trouble sleeping) and creating new ways to manage that stress, you’ll do just fine. It just takes some planning, support and persistence.
The time to quit is now! You can do it!
For more information about freshOUT, Mazzoni Center’s free smoking-cessation program geared toward the LGBT community, contact Toni Resnick at (215) 563-0652 ext. 242. This program is funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.