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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The smoking rate among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in West Virginia is higher than that of the general population, new data suggests.
Nearly 41 percent of people in the LGBT community smoke, compared to 23.9 percent of the state's general population, according to data from researchers in West Virginia University's School of Public Health and the state Bureau for Public Health's Division of Tobacco Prevention.
This is the first time the tobacco use survey has collected data concerning sexual orientation.
Robert Anderson, an investigator with the WVU Prevention Research Center, said studies by other states and LGBT groups have indicated that a higher number of LGBT people are smokers.
It was "high time" researchers found out if the same was true in West Virginia, Anderson said. The general rule is that twice as many in the LGBT community smoke as the straight population, he said.
Scout, the director of the Network for LGBT Health Equity at the Fenway Institute said West Virginia is one of only a handful of states that are including the LGBT question on its smoking survey.
"We've known for decades [that the smoking rate is higher for the LGBT community]," said Scout, who only uses one name. "Kudos to West Virginia because while smoking studies have shown it for decades, governments usually miss the information because they're not asking if people are LGBT."
The network recently honored Bruce Adkins, director of West Virginia's Division of Tobacco Prevention, with the Outstanding State Advocate Award. The award is for state-level leadership in advancing and understanding the need for addressing disparate LGBT health needs.
The higher percentage of smokers in the LGBT community is something the staff at Covenant House has been well aware of. The Charleston agency has offered smoking cessation classes for those who identify as LGBT for the past four years, said Ellen Allen, the agency's executive director.
LGBT-specific cessation classes are uncommon, Scout said.
"The truth is it's rarer than hens' teeth to be able to find LGBT-specific cessation classes," Scout said. "It's ridiculous because their rates are so much higher."
Smoking is about stress, and without being comfortable to talk about stressors, including societal pressures related to sexual orientation, a person isn't likely to successfully quit smoking, Scout said.
While research has not determined a reason for the higher rates, Allen said tobacco advertising and stressors play a role for the higher smoking rate.
The LGBT community is somewhat of an oppressed population, she said. Stressors including bullying and homophobia can drive people to smoke, she said.
"Those barriers are coming down but they still exist," Allen said. "Smoking sometimes is a way to cope and fit in."
The smoking industry has targeted the LGBT population in its advertising, too, she said.
Another reason that Covenant House has offered smoking cessation classes to the LGBT community is that health outcomes for smokers with HIV are typically worse than for those with HIV who don't smoke, Allen said.
"If you live with the [HIV] virus and smoke, you're vulnerable to HIV-related cancer," she said. "Your body can't fight off infection when you use tobacco."
The study was conducted in the first four months of last year. Telephone surveys were conducted of 2,132 adults.
The survey also includes a sample of adults who only have a cell phone, which is a major difference from earlier survey, according to researchers.
Of the respondents, 260 people used a cell phone and no landline, Anderson said. That sample number is based on the estimated proportion of people in the state believed to use only a cell phone compared with those who have landlines and a cell phone or a landline only, he said.
With the number of people using only cell phones increasing all the time, Anderson said the next tobacco use survey is likely to include a bigger sample of those with only cell phones.
Reach Lori Kersey at email@example.com