FDA Pumps Money Into Campaign to Counter Tobacco Use in LGBT Community

Campaign features drag queens, party scenes, coming out videos.

ByABC News
May 2, 2016, 6:27 PM

— -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched a $35.7 million anti-tobacco campaign today focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young adults.

The new campaign, “This Free Life,” includes four videos that aim to prevent and reduce smoking among LGBT 18- to 24-year-olds, who are about twice as likely to use tobacco as other people their age, according to Kathy Crosby, director of the Office of Health Communication and Education in the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.

“This is the biggest LGBT health initiative that’s ever existed," said Doctor Scout, director of LGBT HealthLink, who was consulted by the FDA in making the ads. A lot of tobacco control has not focused on LGBT people, "despite our huge smoking rate," he said.

Paid for using funds collected from the tobacco industry, the videos prominently feature coming-out stories, famous drag queens, and chance romantic encounters at parties. Instead of focusing solely on the health impacts of smoking, the videos highlight how smoking may affect how one looks and smells.

“It’s a rather sophisticated combination,” said Dr. Robert Jackler, principal investigator of the group known as Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising. “It's really about the eyes meeting across the bar floor, and will tobacco use tip the scale away from [a new relationship]?”

LGBT people are thought to smoke more often than their peers because of increased stress and the sense of community many find in bars and clubs, where smoking ads and promotions are common, according to Scout.

Tobacco companies have long targeted LGBT communities. Most famously, in documents that were made public in the 1990s as the result of anti-tobacco litigation, tobacco company R.J. Reynolds was found to have targeted one of their campaigns, “Project SCUM,” at gay men and homeless people. SCUM stood for “Subculture Urban Marketing.”

What Jackler said he finds particularly interesting, however, is how “This Free Life” uses tobacco companies’ own advertising language against them.

“Freedom-based advertising is huge in the tobacco world,” he said, referring in particular to new electronic cigarette ads, which claim to give users the freedom to smoke wherever they please and without health repercussions.

Using the slogan, “Freedom to be, tobacco-free,” the FDA’s campaign appeals to ideas of freedom and individuality that are “very resonant” with the LGBT community, according to Jackler. At the same time, he warns they may have missed the mark in a campaign that he saw largely as one focused on prevention, not quitting.

According to Crosby, the campaign decided to focus on the 18-to-24 demographic primarily because the average age of coming out is around 18 years old.

“By the age of 18, most people who start smoking already have,” Jackler said. “They do so as an act of adolescent rebellion, they get hooked on the nicotine, and they have a lifetime of tobacco use because it’s so addictive.”

The FDA has aimed separate tobacco prevention campaigns at youths under 18, such as “The Real Cost,” which premiered in February 2014.

“This Free Life” launches online today in 12 markets: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. According to Crosby, these cities were selected based on LGBT population, prevalence of tobacco use, and availability and cost-effectiveness of LGBT-targeted media. In late May, the campaign will begin to target LGBT events, such as Pride and club events.

The FDA will continue to evaluate how the ads increase awareness and change viewers' attitudes and beliefs about tobacco use. They may consider developing new messages based on real-time feedback, Crosby said.

The FDA spent roughly two years putting together this campaign with Rescue, a behavior change marketing company, after receiving the authority to regulate tobacco products in 2009.

“It’s been coming to a boil for a long time,” Scout said.

ABC News’ Julie Barzilay contributed to this report.