Homeless Smoking Epidemic Goes Ignored

By Chrisanne Grise 07/18/13

75% of homeless people smoke, and experts say it's "keeping people in the cycle of poverty."

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Homeless people also "want to be healthy."
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Homeless people in the US are four times more likely than the general population to smoke cigarettes, at a tremendous physical and financial cost. According to new research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, up to 75% of the nation's 3.5 million homeless people are smokers, and many are dying of cigarette-related causes such as cancer and heart disease. But compared to other issues faced by this population, smoking is not considered a "pressing issue," says Dr. Travis Baggett, an instructor of medicine at Harvard University who has been tracking the health problems of 28,000 homeless people in Boston for over six years. "As you take a step back and look at the public health implications and public health impact, what we're finding is difficult to ignore…The vast majority of homeless people, just like any other type of patient we see, they want to be healthy," says Baggett, "They want to feel better.”

Some experts blame the tobacco industry for targeting homeless people, often donating cigarettes or branded blankets to shelters, and in some cases, running specific marketing programs in urban areas geared towards more vulnerable populations. "Over time, the tobacco epidemic has become more and more concentrated among those least in a position to pay for cessation services and access health care," says Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of Legacy, a nonprofit that promotes public health. Beyond contributing to health problems, smoking can create an extra financial burden that could prevent homeless people from getting off the streets. “It's not just a financial cost, it's also an opportunity cost, because [of] all the time that's spent getting money for cigarettes,” says Baggett. "It's probably contributing to keeping people in the cycle of poverty."

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices, AbsolutePunk.net, Chorus.fm, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.