By Sharon Gittleman
FERNDALE – Kevin Thomas’ last visit to Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center may have saved his life.
While Thomas only popped in to the Center to pick up some free publications, a hallway banner announcing the Gay American Smokeout caught his eye.
“I want to quit smoking so bad,” said Thomas.
Those words were exactly what Smokeout organizers wanted to hear. Last Thursday, Affirmations offered free quit smoking kits to people like Thomas who stopped by the Center. Each kit was stuffed with hard candy, a stress ball and pamphlets documenting the myths and dangers of smoking – and ways to break free from the habit.
While stars like Bette Davis looked glamorous when they lit up a cigarette in the movies, moviegoers didn’t see the real-life pleasure-stealing effects people like Thomas have had to face.
“The smell, the yucky feeling afterwards and the energy loss,” said Thomas. “I run up the stairs and I’m short of breath at (age) 37.”
Wrinkles, yellow teeth and impotence are just a few of the results of nicotine addiction experts cite.
Affirmations Development Director Michael Mirto knows exactly how Thomas feels. Five weeks ago, Mirto quit his 10-year habit for health and “aesthetic” reasons.
“My partner appreciates the fact I’m not smoking,” he said laughing.
After a counseling session with Affirmations Health Services Coordinator Deirdre Shires, Mirto found new ways to fight cigarette cravings.
“I go for a walk or call a friend,” he said. “I talk a lot in the car instead of smoking on my two-hour commute from Ann Arbor.”
Mirto said he started an investment program with the money he’s saved from not feeding his pack-a-day habit.
“When I get to six months, I’ll see something tangible,” he said.
While most people have heard of nicotine addiction’s physical symptoms, they may not know two other factors that make stopping smoking so difficult.
“There’s also the fact that smoking is a habit,” said Shires. “It’s totally ingrained in your day.”
Psychological dependence is another problem for smokers, she said. When they feel angry or sad or depressed, they turn to cigarettes to get them through the crisis.
Smoking is an especially big problem for gays and lesbians, said Shires.
“The LGBT community has a much higher rate – up to 50 percent higher than the straight community,” Shires said.
Stress and depression are two factors that prompt LGBT people to turn to nicotine for relief, she said.
“Smoking is part of the bar culture,” Shires said. “Bars are a gathering place for gay people.”
Shire said turning away from tobacco isn’t easy.
“Giving up cigarettes is like giving up a relationship,” she said. “You go through a mourning period. You have to think, maybe cigarettes did help me cope with things, but it took away my health and money.”