Prime Minister Julia Gillard has pulled out of a speech at the Australian Christian Lobby’s National Conference next month after “offensive” claims by its leader that being gay was more harmful to people’s health than smoking.

The PM released a statement today calling comments by Wallace “unacceptable”.

“There are a range of deeply held views in the community on the issue of same-sex marriage but it is the responsibility of all parties in this debate to be respectful and responsible in any public comments they make,” Gillard said.

“I believe yesterday’s comments by Jim Wallace were offensive.

“To compare the health effects of smoking cigarettes with the many struggles gay and lesbian Australians endure in contemporary society is heartless and wrong.”

The PM has been heavily criticised for accepting an invitation to speak at the event which is themed “religious freedom in a secular democracy”.

The smoking claim was made yesterday by ACL managing director Jim Wallace during a debate with Greens leader Christine Milne in Tasmania. Wallace argued that gay people suffered shorter life expectancy than smokers.

“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,” Wallace said.

“The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”

Gay activists said the ACL had become desperate after the organisation’s leader made the smoking comments.

Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group spokesman Rodney Croome said Wallace was a bigger threat to gay health than any “lifestyle choice”.

“Mr Wallace’s offensive remarks show how desperate he has become, and they effectively deal the Australian Christian Lobby out of the marriage equality debate,” Croome said.

“Yes, there are health problems in parts of the gay and lesbian community, but they are caused by the prejudice of people like Mr Wallace and the discriminatory laws he defends.”

Wallace later issued a statement claiming his comments had been misrepresented.

“I was not comparing homosexuality with smoking at all. What I was saying is that on one hand we are vocal on our discouragement of people to smoke and on the other we are suppressing public dialogue about the health risks associated with homosexuality,” he said.

Croome also accused Wallace of using misleading and outdated research to back his claims.

“Mr Wallace’s reference to gay life expectancy being 20 years shorter than the average comes from a survey of obituaries in San Francisco newspapers at the height of the AIDS crisis,” he said.

“The quoting of irrelevant and biased studies to stigmatise gay Australians is a low and desperate tactic that diminishes Mr Wallace and his cause.”

This was denied by Wallace who said he had used a range of evidence in making his claims.

“By the activists’ own admission … gay marriage did not solve the mental and other chronic physical health problems associated with the gay lifestyle,” Wallace said.

“Far from being out of date information, we know that every year over 80 percent of newly acquired HIV infections are the result of male homosexuality and this is verified in the 2011 report of the Kirby Institute at UNSW.”

Beyondblue CEO Kate Carnell today said that the claims made by the Wallace reinforce the necessity of beyondblue’s anti-discrimination campaign launched yesterday in Sydney.

“Comments made yesterday by Mr Jim Wallace, acknowledging that gay,lesbian, bisexual, trans and intersex people people have higher rates of substance use and suicide than the broader community show just how important and timely the campaign launch this week by beyondblue to reduce discrimination really is,” Carnell said.

“Mr Wallace’s linking of the deleterious outcomes of smoking with gay marriage is ludicrous. Suggesting that same-sex marriage is bad for the health of GLBTI people is simply wrong. The thing that is bad for GLBTI people’s health is discrimination.”

Australian Marriage Equality national convenor Alex Greenwich called on Wallace to apologise.

“Jim Wallace has made it clear that the Christian Lobby is basing their campaign against equality on fear rather than facts,” Greenwich said.

“To salvage what limited creditably he has left, Mr Wallace should apologise for the damage that such extreme comments would have on vulnerable gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people.”

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