Last March city officials named smoking among the greatest health risks facing LGBT Chicagoans. Now, the city is taking aim at cigarettes that experts say disproportionately impact LGBT youth.
The Chicago Department of Public Health and the mayor's office have announced new efforts to cut down on the use of menthol cigarettes among youth in the city.
The announcement comes in the wake of call for input on proposed menthol regulation put out by the Food and Drug Administration.
The city will be holding town hall forums on menthol cigarettes and launching a new ad campaign against them, according to a press release from the Mayor's office.
According to Brian Richardson, a spokesperson for CDPH, LGBT youth are hard-hit by tobacco use, and menthol is the primary culprit. Among LGBT youth smokers, 71 percent are smoking menthol cigarettes, Richardson said.
Menthol cigarettes tend to appeal to first-time smokers because the minty flavor covers up the tobacco taste, and their cooling sensation can dull the harshness of smoke.
"Menthol makes the poison go down easier," said Phoenix Matthews, Ph.D., using a common phrase among tobacco researchers. Matthews is a behavioral psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Matthews notes that studies have shown menthol cigarettes to be more addictive than regular cigarettes.
LGBT people are two to three times more likely to smoke than heterosexuals, said Mathews. Further, a stunning 75 percent of people with HIV smoke, Matthews said.
Menthol use is also high among people of color, with 80 percent of African American adults who smoke using menthol and 60-70 percent of Latino adults doing so, said Matthews.
But despite the addictiveness and appeal to youth, government bodies have been slow to act on menthol, said Matthews.
In 2009, a new federal law banned the sale of candy-flavored cigarettes, but menthol was exempted from the bill amid outcry from anti-smoking activists. Matthews said that government entities, under pressure from the tobacco industry, tend to shy away from pursuing menthol use reduction.
That makes CDPH's new campaign unusual and significant, Matthews said.
Boston-based LGBT Health clinic The Fenway Institute agrees that the move is significant. That organization's Network for LGBT Health program sent CDPH an official endorsement of efforts to cut down on menthol use.
"The Network applauds the dedication of the City of Chicago and Mayor Emanuel to the health of all communities, as especially the communities most affected by menthol use," wrote Dr. Scout, director of the program.
Richardson said that at least one of the menthol town hall meetings will focus specifically on LGBT people. The dates of those meetings have yet to be announced.