October is LGBTQ History Month, which, along with the coinciding National Coming Out Day, provides the community with opportunities for celebration and conscious reflection.

An important piece of reflection this year should be on the tobacco industry’s historical targeting of the LGBTQ community, which has resulted in significantly higher than average usage rates and increased negative health outcomes including death.

Banning the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes, is a positive, common-sense reform that would make a real difference in the health of the LGBTQ community, and indeed for all people — especially young people.

Michael Crews

We must recognize that today, tobacco use is the most serious, yet preventable, health crisis facing LGBTQ youth in their teens and 20s. This is why we need to increase our focus on encouraging healthier lifestyles and breaking the industry-crafted cultural link between smoking and the LGBTQ community.

While that effort is hampered by the massive investment by tobacco companies in marketing to the LGBTQ community, forward-thinking policymakers in Denver can come together to blunt these efforts.

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Consider some basic statistics that are as clear as they are compelling:

The most recent Healthy Kids Colorado Survey shows LGB youths’ tobacco usage is still constantly higher than that of their heterosexual peers when it comes to e-cigarette usage, traditional cigarette usage and menthol-flavored tobacco products. In fact, over 32% of LGB youth indicated using menthol products; among LGBTQ adults it’s 36%.

These numbers are, of course, concerning to all of us working to improve the health of our community.

Equally concerning are statistics from the nationally respected Public Health Institute that show that 80% of young people who begin tobacco use start with flavored products.

This is why city leaders — who took strong action last year to raise the tobacco sale age to 21 and license tobacco retailers — should continue this momentum and target tobacco flavors. 

The good news is that Mayor Michael Hancock has publicly backed the concept of a flavor ban, giving a huge boost to this important public health measure to protect our communities.

Clearly, tobacco companies know that flavors are a valuable tool to hook young people. A source of frustration for all of us who work to improve the future for LGBTQ Coloradans is the mountain of targeted tobacco advertising aimed at our community.

From print advertising to billboards to product marketing inside bars and clubs, tobacco companies know they have had fertile ground to hook LGBTQ people at a rate higher than they hook the non-LGBTQ population.

We have been fighting back because the health risks are so high — risks that have come into even clearer focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have now learned that smokers and others with compromised lungs are in far greater danger for hospitalization or death if stricken.

In fact, the rate of smoking for LGBTQ adults is double that of non-LGBTQ adults, putting our community at further risk during this global pandemic.

Putting a stop to the sale of flavored tobacco products in the City of Denver would be a landmark step forward in the fight to improve the health of people who visit, live in, or work in our city — including the large number of LGBTQ people who call Denver home. 

The benefits of this positive reform would be seen for decades to come, and we urge city leaders to continue to put public health ahead of deep-pocketed special interests.

Michael Crews is policy director at One Colorado, an advocacy organization advancing equality for LGBTQ Coloradans and their families.

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