To marginalized communities, the tobacco industry is a master of disguise, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

LGBT smokers are significantly more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes such as the Kool brand. By numbing the mouth and throat, menthol makes it easier to start using tobacco and harder to quit. Jeff Chiu/Associated Press, File

This is most certainly true for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer. Already on the outskirts, experiencing persistent discrimination and exclusion, LGBTQ communities are a prime target of the tobacco industry in its pursuit of “replacement smokers.”

The same is true for African Americans, people in low-income communities, people experiencing homelessness and people with mental illness – all socially, politically and economically marginalized, and all experiencing well-documented targeting by the tobacco industry.

Let’s be clear: The tobacco industry knows exactly what it’s doing. Tobacco products are deadly and tobacco addiction requires young, developing brains. The survival of tobacco companies depends 100 percent on their ability to attract and hook adolescents and young adults. They have mastered their craft, spending billions of dollars every year in the U.S. alone, designing and promoting a product line that is carefully curated to appeal to their target market – to reduce stress and worry, fill a social and emotional void and induce an artificial culture of inclusion and belonging.

We know all too well about the tobacco industry’s long and lethal history of targeting people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer. We’ve seen it firsthand – in our work, among our friends and at our community events.

The tobacco industry sells us on a feeling – a feeling of comfort, of connection and, often, of momentary escape. They prey upon the homophobia and transphobia that so many of us experience daily by selling us an escape. They build us a community and a culture that draws us in, that normalizes tobacco use and makes us feel accepted and cool, even as it is affecting our health – even as it is literally killing us.

Smoke breaks at work, smoke breaks at bars, smoke breaks during tense family dinners – a socially acceptable response to a stressful situation – a way to walk outside, literally and figuratively, and take a break. We are aware of the health repercussions of smoking, but this familiar devil is often a safer alternative to toxic discrimination.

For decades, the tobacco industry has targeted us with their products, their advertising campaigns, their bar promotions and their sponsorships of events all around the country. We’ve watched them give away products at Pride events, collecting names and contact information for continued pursuit, all the while portraying tobacco use as a normal part of LGBTQ life.

The tobacco industry has made it clear that they need us addicted to their products, but do you ever wonder what they really think of us? Internal industry documents expose a marketing campaign in the mid-1990’s targeting LGBT and homeless populations called Project SCUM (Subculture Urban Marketing). The name says it all.

Looking more closely, you can see the common thread in their strategy: flavors. Winter Menthol, Cotton Candy, Peppermint Mocha, Crème Brulee – there are now more than 15,000 flavored tobacco products on the market. Flavored tobacco products are a key part of the bait – an entry point – a way to make those first few experiences with tobacco smoother and easier. Menthol is particularly dangerous. Menthol numbs the throat and mouth, making it easier to start using tobacco, easier to inhale more deeply and, ultimately, much harder to quit.

The result is a multigenerational health tragedy. One in 3 transgender adults smokes cigarettes. One in 3 LGBT smokers smokes menthols. Four out of 5 kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product. More than 1 out of 4 Maine high school students now use e-cigarettes. And overall, LGBTQ adults smoke at rates up to 2½ times higher than straight and cisgender adults.

The tobacco industry preys on kids and marginalized communities, including the LGBTQ community. They lure us, they hook us, they addict us and they make it as hard as possible to quit. We’ve watched it unfold, and we are concerned about the health and well-being of the next generation of LGBTQ youth.

Today we call for justice and equity – the survival of our LGBTQ youth depends upon it. It’s time to remove the industry’s disguise and reveal the wolf beneath. It’s time to end the sale of menthol and all other flavored tobacco products. Each and every Maine kid should get a fair shot at a healthy and productive future, free from tobacco addiction.

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