Smoking rates among lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women in NSW are twice as high as the general population reference. We look at what’s going on, and how a new campaign is changing attitudes.
Marrickville’s Kelly Azizi began smoking at 18. When she talks about quitting two years ago; she describes it as a break-up.
“It was a big change,” she says.
“It's difficult for me to talk about how I manage not smoking without considering how I quit in the first place.
“For me, my decision to quit smoking was an irreversible one—it was all or nothing.
“Framing it as a relationship breakup, or even as a death, was helpful because it gave me the room I needed to actually grieve for this tangible thing that I'd lost—until I actually got that grief out of my system.”
Two years on from making that decision, Kelly says she can hardly feel the void that smoking left.
“I gradually found myself doing things that permit me the same kind of meditative effect that smoking afforded,” she says.
“Gardening is a great one, because I get to use my hands, and I get time to myself to think.
“It's like I've moved on from that relationship, and I garden because I actually like it!”
Sharing experiences to raise awareness
Kelly’s successful quit experience is shared in a new campaign, Smoke Free, Still Fierce, which aims to change the high rates of lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women currently smoking.
Led by ACON (formerly the AIDS Council of NSW), with support from the Cancer Institute NSW, the campaign is using the experiences of women from the LBQ community to help raise awareness, and shift attitudes and behaviour around smoking among these women.
Karen Price, Deputy CEO of ACON, says the longstanding disparity in smoking rates for LBQ women is proof traditional campaigns aren’t working for them.
Figures from the most recent Sydney Women and Sexual Health (SWASH) Survey, conducted by ACON and the University of Sydney, highlight the extent of the problem.
“Across the last ten years of the survey, smoking rates of LBQ women have remained consistently high,” Karen says.
“This campaign is a significant first step in raising awareness.”
It’s a campaign that Kelly believes in, too.
“I don't think LGBQT as a whole respond positively, if at all, to mainstream anti-smoking campaigns, because ours is a history of protest and non-conformity anyway,” she explains.
“In contrast, the Smoke Free, Still Fierce campaign strives to humanise smokers by focusing on our actual experiences, and to unpack smoking as a cultural practice.”
Launched in May, the online campaign uses empowering messages coming from influential community figures to specifically address the relationship LBQ women have with smoking.
Where does the connection with smoking come from?
With approximately 30 per cent of LBQ women currently smoking in NSW, compared to 13 per cent in the general population, it’s a big issue.
Additionally, almost half (48 per cent) of young LBQ women in NSW aged 16-24 report smoking.
Kelly and Karen see common connections to the high rates through their experiences, both professionally and within the community.
“I think it is important to acknowledge that smoking is as much of a social justice and inequity issue as it is an individual health behaviour,” Karen explains.
“LBQ women, like other marginalised groups in society, report higher levels of psychological distress, experiences of discrimination, violence and stigma.
“It makes sense that, in these communities, tobacco, alcohol and other substance use is higher.”
For Kelly, smoking has been a signifier of being different, a product of the positive party culture, and a support.
“Smoking can be a thing people do when they party, and the party culture is strong and vibrant within the LGBQT community.
“What I do think is bad, is by decreasing services and support for the LGBQT community—or any marginalised or stigmatised community for that matter—members of that community will find other ways to cope.
“It so follows that the LGBQT community—a demographic that deals with a higher rate of mental health issues than the mainstream population due to things like stigmatisation—will turn to smoking as a crutch,” she says.
The campaign strikes at all of this. It highlights where people can get support, and sends the message that smoking doesn’t need to be part of anyone’s personal identity.
For more information, visit the ACON website.
Smoke Free, Still Fierce is supported by the Cancer Institute NSW through an Evidence to Practice grant.