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Ellie Nicholas, who calls herself a people lover, thoroughly enjoyed bartending in New York. Whether working in gay bars or straight pubs, she was good at her job and earned a comfortable living.
Then she started getting sick. So sick that she had to be hospitalized for several days at a time. "I had trouble breathing,” she said. “It was terrifying!" Doctors would diagnose that she had asthma, a condition that still bothers her more than two decades later.
“I never smoked a day in my life,” Nicholas said. “My parents smoked when I was a kid, and I never liked it.”
But in the 1980s, bars and restaurants typically allowed smoking. Every night at work, she would breathe in second-hand smoke. In 1990, doctors told her that her job was the root of her health problems because she was inhaling other people’s cigarette smoke.
After 10 years in working in bars, including as a bartending teacher, Nicholas had enough of the second-hand smoke because she knew about its negative impact on her health.
“I decided to quit my job and find a new line of work,” she said, taking an economic hit when she left behind bartending. Nicholas moved to Florida, where she eventually found work in a smoke-free restaurant.
Nicholas and others who are impacted by the negative effects of smoking are featured in a new multimedia campaign, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which launches today.
Smoking is a huge problem in the LGBT community
Dr. Tim McAfee, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoke and Health, also spoke to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about the horrific statistics showing that smoking is “70% higher in the LGBT community” than in the straight world.
“This is a big, big health burden,” he said.
The CDC is dedicated to reducing smoking rates in the LGBT community, McAfee said.
“We think the campaign will save lives and it will save LGBT lives,” he said.
Smoking and the dangers to HIV-positive smokers
Perhaps the most startling statement McAfee made is that the latest research from Scandinavia shows that HIV-positive smokers, who have stable health because they take their antiviral medication, are now dying from smoking-related diseases, not from AIDS.
“We need to pull back the curtain on this issue,” McAfee said, stressing that HIV-positive people can expect a long lifetime if they take their medicine, exercise and avoid smoking.
"Smoking itself is bad," he added. "But when you mix in HIV, it's ... like adding kerosene to a fire."
He blasted the tobacco industry for targeting LGBT people, particularly the youth, and contributing to the rise in smoking in the gay community.
“This is a health justice and equity issue,” McAfee said. “We at the CDC are committed to this cause.”
Like Dr. McAfee, Nicholas believes that smoking is prevalent in the LGBT community, in part, because of widespread marketing and advertising. She thinks many gay Americans, growing up in a world of rejection and bullying, are often socially insecure and see smoking as "something cool to do."
"Cigarettes are a crutch," she said. "A lot of gay people, particularly among the youth, have a problem with smoking. Once you start smoking, it is difficult to quit."
Since the 1990s, Nicholas has asked family, friends and strangers not to smoke in her presence. She still uses an inhaler daily to control her asthma, and she doesn't wish her condition on anybody else.
The multimedia ad campaign
“Tips from Former Smokers” is the second series of ads from the CDC. The ads are funded by the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and public Health Fund.
The campaign features compelling stories of former smokers living with smoking-related diseases and disabilities. The ads will run for at least 12 weeks on television, radio, billboards and online as well as in theaters, magazines and newspapers nationwide.
“This campaign is saving lives and saving dollars by giving people the facts about smoking in an easy-to-understand way that encourages quitting,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.
How to find help
More than 440,000 Americans each year lose their lives to smoking-related diseases, and for every one death 20 more continue living with one or more serious illnesses from smoking. Nearly 70% of smokers say they want to quit.
The new CDC ads feature smoking-related health conditions, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, more severe adult asthma, and complications from diabetes, such as blindness, kidney failure, heart disease and amputation.
To get help in quitting smoking, call 800-QUIT-NOW, a toll-free number to access support across the country.
Also, visit www.cdc.gov/tips to view the personal stories from the campaign and for free help quitting.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.
Top left: Ellie Nicholas
Bottom left: Dr. Tim McAfee