1 min

Does lighting up increase HIV risk?

Oral sex transmission is the burning question

There’s at least one vulnerability to HIV infection that a lot of men probably haven’t thought of: smoking.

“We’ve all seen the pictures on the cigarette packages of the blackened gums and teeth falling out,” says Keith Loukes, a gay family physician who is the author of a forthcoming book on queer health issues. “But we don’t think of how smoking-related gum disease can make us more vulnerable to contracting HIV.”

Loukes says cigarette smoke causes irritation of the gums, mouth and throat, and tears down the naturally protective layers of cells that act as barriers to acquiring infections. He says that’s why people who smoke get sick more often, or can get bleeding gums or gingivitis.

He says there is no way to put an exact figure on how many times more likely a smoker is to catch HIV from oral sex, though he says the risk is considered low.

“But smoking can open a door for the virus to enter the body,” he says.

People who already have HIV are also more vulnerable to the effects of smoking. “People with weakened immune systems are already more vulnerable, but when you add smoking and you irritate the lungs and throat, you are at even greater risk of infection by further breaking down your natural defences.”

Loukes says there have been several studies that have found a significantly higher rate of smoking in the queer community than the community at large.

“There is lots of speculation about why that is, but it’s possibly because of more mood disorders like depression and substance abuse in the queer community.”

Smoking is also still glamourized in the gay community. “We see our peers smoking everywhere we go,” he says. “And tobacco companies are even sponsoring events at some of the popular dance clubs.”

He says that activists have put a lot of time, money and effort into fighting sexually transmitted diseases, “but smoking has never really ever been adequately addressed. We still seem to think it’s sexy.”

* For information on Pink Triangle Services’ smoking cessation program, call (613) 233-2317.