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Australia

Sep 6, 2012

Get Fact: do gays have more health problems than smokers?

Julia Gillard pulled out of next month's Australian Christian Lobby conference in Canberra, condemning boss Jim Wallace's claim that taking up smoking is healthier than being gay. We put Wallace's claims to the truth test.

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Yesterday, Australian Christian Lobby boss Jim Wallace told an audience debating gay marriage at the University of Tasmania that taking up smoking was a comparatively better lifestyle choice than engaging in the salacious activity associated with same-sex marriage.

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health — which it presents when it wants more money for health — are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years,” he said. Smoking, by contrast, led to a reduced life expectancy of between seven and 10 years.

This morning, Prime Minister Julia Gillard pulled out of next month’s ACL conference in Canberra, condemning Wallace’s comments as “heartless and wrong”. How wrong? In another instalment of Crikey‘s Get Fact series, we put Wallace’s claims to the truth test.

There are a mountain of studies reporting poorer health outcomes among the gay community — gays are more likely to be smokers, to use and abuse drugs and to attempt suicide. In a follow-up ACL press release this morning, Wallace pointed to Canadian data sent to that country’s human rights commission showing troubling rates of alcohol use, depression, a lack of access to care, higher cancer risk and violence.

But what about life expectancy? Smokers may go to the grave a decade earlier but is a same-sex attracted person really likely to have their lives cut short simply because of their sexual preference?

Wallace’s claim about mortality — which he previously trotted out in The Australian last year — is repeatedly used by American anti-gay groups to ratchet up political support for the sanctity of marriage. But the foundation for the statement is dubious and contested.

Much of the “data” supporting that claim relates to gay men in an urban HIV subset (as opposed to say, lesbians in a civil union), and is at least 20 years old.

Wallace’s life expectancy claims could stem from a 1997 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology which concluded that “in a major Canadian centre (Vancouver), life expectancy at age 20 years for gay and bis-xual men is eight to 20 years less than for all men. If the same pattern of mortality were to continue, we estimate that nearly half of gay and bisexual men currently aged 20 years will not reach their 65th birthday.

“Under even the most liberal assumptions, gay and bisexual men in this urban centre are now experiencing a life expectancy similar to that experienced by all men in Canada in the year 1871,” the study said.

But the data in that study was collected between 1987 and 1992, well before advanced treatments for HIV were developed. In 2001, its authors published a follow-up study blasting “select groups in US and Finland” for exploiting the research to “suggest that gay and bis-xual men live an unhealthy lifestyle that is destructive to themselves and to others”. They wrote:

“If we were to repeat this analysis today the life expectancy of gay and bis-xual men would be greatly improved. Deaths from HIV infection have declined dramatically in this population since 1996 …

“It is essential to note that the life expectancy of any population is a descriptive and not a prescriptive measure. Death is a product of the way a person lives and what physical and environmental hazards he or she faces every day. It cannot be attributed solely to their s-xual orientation or any other ethnic or social factor.”

A 2009 Danish study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that while death rates among same-sex married couples was a third higher than the general population from1989 to 2004, after 1996 the mortality rate among gay men in same-sex marriages was similar to heterosexuals.

Another source favoured by gay marriage opponents is Cameron, Playfair and Wellum’s widely debunkedgay obituary” study published in 1994 in the Omega Journal of Death and Dying. It concluded gay men have an average lifespan of 43 years. The study involved researchers consulting the death notices — mostly AIDS-related — in the urban gay community press.

The problem was the study suffered from what statisticians call a “non response bias” — that is, the sample was corrupted by the non-inclusion of gay men who were still alive. According to statisticians from Columbia University, the average age of AIDS victims is about 40. But even before new treatments became widely available, only about 20% of gay men were likely to die of AIDS.

Cameron, the founder of recognised hate group Family Research Institute, followed that up with this pseudo 1998 study, “Does Homosexual Activity Shorten Life“. That was again based on surveys of gay obituaries and other “random surveys” and found the “medium age of death” for homosexuals was less than 50 years. The evidence was “consistent with previous findings suggesting that homosexual activity may be associated with a lifespan shortened by 20 to 30 years”.

Even excusing its dodgy methodology, treatment advances have rendered the conclusions defunct. As Andrew Carr, director of the HIV, immunology and infectious diseases unit at St Vincent’s Hospital, told The Sydney Morning Herald in July: ”Once upon a time the average person who got HIV had a life expectancy of about 10 years. Now, if you get HIV and go on treatment your life is still probably shorter than if you had never had the virus, but maybe only five to 10 years less.”

Carr said that when groups prone to HIV are stripped out, notably injecting drug users, then the difference becomes even smaller. And in the US, the death rate from HIV was nine times higher in 1990 than two years ago.

One of the other studies cited by Wallace in the past — a 2003 Dutch study — found on average gay relationships only last 18 months. Those findings, published in the journal AIDS, were based on a cohort of young Dutch gays aged 18-21 residing in the middle of Amsterdam.

In fact, other research, including a study in the US state of Vermont — the first state to legalise same-sex civil unions — showed civil union households seemed to mirror that of the general population. Crucially, the data did not require “participants” or volunteers that skewed the result — it was a simple reading of the information collected by state bureaucrats.

Peversely, it is likely that media interventions like Wallace’s may in fact perpetuate many the health problems he is himself referring to. A recent study from the University of Queensland, The Psychology of Same-Sex Marriage Opposition, showed that individuals exposed to media articles bagging same-sex marriage were more likely to report feeling negative and depresseda nd more likely to feel distressed, upset, guilty, scared, afraid, ashamed and nervous. They were more likely to report loneliness, more likely to report they felt weak and powerless — and less likely to report feeling happy or positive.

A recent Psychologists for Marriage Equality submission to the Senate inquiry into the gay marriage bill cited a 2007 study showing the phenomenon of “minority stress” means “social prejudice, discrimination, and violence against lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals play a significant role in the mental health outcomes” of these groups.

So, while the gay population does appear to experience a disproportionate prevalence of negative health effects brought on by others, the evidence that gays die earlier than straights is tenuous at best. Accordingly, we rate Wallace’s claims mostly rubbish.

Andrew Crook —

Andrew Crook

Former Crikey Senior Journalist

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63 thoughts on “Get Fact: do gays have more health problems than smokers?

  1. Rab Zen

    Wikipedia at times can not be trusted. In this matter they love putting up tired old arguments as “gospel ” be very careful with wikipedia, it’s a short cut to nowhere sometimes.

    @Old school

    (((For there were some eunuchs which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”)))

    Ok, there some predestined from the womb to be asexual, there were some who were for what ever reason made that way, a common practice at that time, by men, and there were some who did it to themselves on purpose for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake. Jesus is refering to the “asexuality ” of the eunuchs, nothing else. If you will receive it.

    @Fredex

    You might need to get yourself a more accurate translation. That text you refer to is about John, “the one that Jesus loved. ” There are many Johns during that time, but that particular “John ” is the author of the Book of John the last of the 4 gospels. He was later banished to the island of Patmos and wrote the Book of Revelation while living in a cave.

    Jesus favoured him because he had the gift of understanding and knowing beyond normal human capacity and without much teaching. But even this was due to John recognizing Jesus’s true identity and pre-eminence immediately. The others stumbled and were slow to come on but John remembered his previous existence with Jesus in the heavenly realms before incarnation to the earth realm. I would n’t read too much into it from an “earthy ‘perspective.

    Rab Zen

  2. jeebus

    Here’s a graph that compiles the topics of ACL press releases and self reported media mentions in the first half of 2012.

    http://technicallyimpartial.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/acl-concerns.jpg

    They are fixated on lobbying against gays at the expense of the poor and needy.

    Is this the public and political face of Australian Christianity nowadays? If not, other Australian Christian organisations have a responsibility to speak up.

  3. Rab Zen

    Posted Thursday, 6 September 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink – you begin your quest by studying the texts to see what Jesus said about himself .

    I can’t stand any religious nonsense and it should never enter the political arena. I agree that the spiritual meaning is taken out of context by most lukewarm christian leaning politicians for political and secular gain. There’s a name for it but it’s probably not worth repeating.

    So lets see what did Jesus, if that’s what you want to call him, actually say about himself and settle the account.

    ” I and the Father are One ”

    ” He who has seen me has seen the Father ”

    ” I have come out of the Father and now I have arrived here ”

    ” no one shall come by the Father except by the Son ”

    There’s much more and it’s time to stop, but this is a Kabbalist’s dream. The apostle Paul said he is the radiance of the glory of the Father and the express image of his being brought forth from before the foundation of the universe to be the Kapparah and Korban for the whole world. Paul also says he is the fulcrum point of all creation and all things were created through him and for him.

    Oh the science, or was he on drugs? Either way this is getting to much. But from the above it seems he seems to think he’s a bit more than your average hippy good bloke. If you believe him that is.

    PS note the mother/female aspect is missing from the above references. But that is a mystery solved when you dip your feet in the deeper end of the pool.

    Rab Zen

  4. Dylan Nicholson

    Even if his comments were completely true, it’s irrelevant. If there was a particular activity (e.g., unprotected anal sex with multiple partners) that caused higher rates of mortality than smoking, then by all means you could mount a case that there should be similar health campaigns around unprotected anal sex as there have been around smoking (noting some important differences: e.g. that smoking affects a much greater percentage of the population, and that many smoking affects many people, including children, would have little choice but to inhale the second hand smoke of others). But nobody could claim with a straight face that the act of choosing to be in a homosexual relationship is in itself likely to increase mortality. Further, there’s no evidence I’m aware of that legalizing gay marriage would increase the risk factors involved in homosexual relationships, and good reason to suppose the opposite – with a culture of publicly recognised lifelong committed relationships among homosexuals established within society, it would be reasonable to hope more care and thought would go into choosing potential sexual partners.

    Anyhow – who are we to say that a same-sex couple should be denied what may well be the thing that would give them the happiest possible lives: judgement-free public and official recognition of their devotion to each other, even if you could show that such recognition would somehow potentially shorten said lives. And yes, I’d apply basically the same logic to smokers – who are we say to that they should denied what may well bring them the happiest possible lives, even if it shortens them in the process. It’s only a problem when their habit starts being a significant cost on the health and finances of other people, which is hard to see how could be the case with same-sex couples.

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