It's Pride 2022, and we are back in the streets to celebrate in-person again! Afterward, many of us will continue the party at bars with family and friends. In San Francisco and Oakland, however, should you head to the bar patio for fresh air, you could find something else in your lungs: secondhand smoke and vape.
Unlike over 50 other cities in the Bay Area, San Francisco and Oakland allow smoking and vaping tobacco on bar patios. Using cannabis in any way on a bar patio is prohibited under state law, but you may still smell a special something on many a bar patio. I know I have.
Whether that patio pollution comes from a cigar, cigarette, joint, blunt, or even a vape, it poses health risks not just for the user, but also for anyone who breathes it in. This is not a controversial idea. At Carnaval last month, LGBTQ Minus Tobacco surveyed 106 people who said they enjoyed San Francisco nightlife. Ninety-six percent agreed that there was at least some harm to breathing secondhand smoke or vape, while 70% said it was "very harmful."
They are right. There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke. There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand vape, which is not a "vapor" but an aerosol. There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand cannabis smoke. Why, then, are we using these substances in our community spaces?
We turn to tobacco and cannabis as forms of self-medication to deal with the stress of existing in a world that isn't ready for us. Even during Pride Month, even in the queer city on 40-odd hills that is San Francisco, we are stressed. On top of other axes like race, class, ability, and immigration status, it's still no cakewalk being queer. We micro-dose stress from getting misgendered and getting weird looks, we swim in it in unsupportive social environments, and let's not even think about the background trainwreck of the foundations of our rights to exist collapsing across the nation.
It's no wonder then that queer people smoke and vape at rates much higher than the general population. Whether breathing in heated particles that inflame the airways constitutes self-help or self-harm may be a matter of perspective, but it's time for us to think beyond the self. One person needing a coping mechanism is no justification for subjecting others to what literally kills them slowly.
That sounds melodramatic, but it's not. Secondhand tobacco smoke exposure kills over 40,000 people in the U.S. each year, despite exposed individuals breathing in much less than smokers. Most secondhand smoke is sidestream smoke, which comes from the burning end of whatever is being smoked. Sidestream smoke is more toxic than the mainstream smoke breathed out by the smoker, and only increases in toxicity as it lingers in the air.
Due to federal research restrictions, we can't say as much about secondhand cannabis smoke. What we do know is that it contains similar toxins to secondhand tobacco smoke. Likewise, due to the novelty of vaping products, we can't say as much about secondhand vape aerosol. Still, we know that it contains respiratory irritants and cancer-causing compounds.
Despite our higher smoking and vaping rates, our communities have been supportive of smoke-free spaces for a long time. In 2011, 78% of 580 people surveyed who attended San Francisco Pride events said they went to queer bars and clubs with patios in the city and agreed that they were "bothered by secondhand smoke in outdoor public areas."
More recent data shows that tobacco users believe smoke-free areas can help them quit. In May and June 2021, We Breathe, the statewide coordinating center to reduce LGBTQ tobacco-related disparities, and Harder+Company conducted a survey of 1,012 LGBTQ adults living in California. All had used tobacco or nicotine in the last month. Forty-three percent were trans or nonbinary. Nearly two-thirds of respondents believed that smoke-free outdoor dining and bars are effective to help people quit using tobacco, including 82% of trans women and 72% of trans men.
Trans people on hormone replacement therapy like me know the importance of medicine that is in some spaces unpopular and hard to get. One difference, though, is that the stuff that goes into our bodies and gives us glorious second puberties doesn't linger in the air. There is no secondhand HRT. There is secondhand smoke. There is secondhand vape. There is secondhand cannabis.
If you're not ready to quit but want to be considerate of others as you celebrate, you can always go to the curb. If you are ready to quit, free confidential help is available from a variety of sources: Phone or chat counseling is available from Kick It California, whose counselors receive LGBTQ cultural competency training; UCSF (415-885-7895) and Berkeley ([email protected]) have group classes for all Bay Area adults; BecomeAnEx offers an app and texting program; Truth Initiative has a texting program for teens and young adults to quit vaping — text DITCHVAPE to 88709. Visit our Quit Smoking/Vaping page for more information.
Have a happy, safe, smoke- and vape-free Pride!
Amaya Wooding (she/her) is the project coordinator at LGBTQ Minus Tobacco. The organization will be tabling at San Francisco Pride this weekend. Find them near Golden Gate Avenue and Larkin Street. Be sure to get one of their smoke-free patio llama stickers.
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