Masks, tobacco and marijuana – it’s all about choice

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Many people are breathing easier with the fall in mask mandates across the country.

From here at home this week, Portland was going to consider expanding its mask requirements and possibly even reinitiating a “hazard pay” mandate. To the surprise of many, the Portland City Council voted 7-2 to repeal their mask ordinance on February 17.

California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Oregon have also announced they will drop many of their mask mandates. Massachusetts will allow students to remove their masks starting next month.

These changes come from a confluence of COVID-related considerations. There is no simple, direct and easy answer. In some analyses, these decisions – especially by Democrats – have a political aspect. Polls show that many Americans want to return to a pre-pandemic “normal.”

President Joe Biden’s approval rating is roughly equivalent to President Donald Trump’s at this point in his term. And, as we all know, Republicans were bombarded in the 2018 congressional election.

It is far too cynical to consider these hidden decisions from a purely political angle. After all, the art of policy-making requires managers to consider and balance myriad goals. Their electoral survival is only one of them.

There are parallels that can be found elsewhere in the political arena. As Portland abandons its mask mandate — leaving people and organizations free to make their own decisions — the city council has simultaneously banned the sale of flavored tobacco. This follows a city-wide referendum widely opening up the availability of cannabis.

There is an obvious tension in these decisions. Adults are trusted to make their own decisions regarding marijuana and mask use. But how dare they consider using mint flavored chewing tobacco?

Likewise, Augusta lawmakers are gearing up to fight over how it might spend millions upon millions of dollars in “surplus” revenue. More than $100 million a year is expected to come from “sin taxes” on tobacco products. Some lawmakers are looking to spend nearly $10 million each year trying to help Mainers quit smoking and cut that $100 million revenue line.

Spending on the anti-tobacco program was cut by Governor Janet Mills in her previous budget submissions, believing the state had greater needs for those dollars. In some circles, it was a politically unpopular choice. Mills did it anyway.

Politics is a series of compromises. If there was a “right” answer, things would be much easier.

When it comes to smoking, everyone agrees that the product is unhealthy and a great way to earn an early grave. But the freedom to make bad choices is what we usually give people. Hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue have a real impact on the state government, even though much of that revenue is spent on tobacco-related programs and addressing health issues that result from smoking.

So, is banning tobacco the right decision? Tax it? Leave it legal, but are you spending money to fight it? No simple answers.

It’s the same with marijuana. He went from “criminal” to “essential” in record speed. But recent studies show that its use can damage the lungs, although in a different way than tobacco. Should it remain legal? Should smoking be banned in favor of other products? Other studies suggest that cannabis-derived oils may be effective in blocking COVID.

But you know what else helps block COVID? N95 masks. But the mandates supporting them are dwindling nationwide.

Masks, COVID, marijuana and tobacco; all come with compromises. And there’s no simple answer to the political questions surrounding them.

Take a deep breath and look within to make responsible decisions.

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