An edited sign on a Portland storefront door on Jan. 10 tells customers they must wear a mask. The Portland City Council voted to end the city's mask mandate on Feb. 17. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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A lot of people are breathing easier with the fall of mask mandates around the country.

Starting right here at home this week, Portland was going to consider extending their mask requirements and possibly even re-triggering a “hazard pay” mandate. In a surprise to many, the Portland City Council voted 7-2 to repeal their mask ordinance on Feb. 17.  

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

These changes come from a confluence of COVID considerations. There is not some simple, straightforward, easy answer. In some analysis, these decisions – particularly by Democrats – have a political aspect. Polls show that many Americans want to return towards a pre-pandemic “normal.”  

President Joe Biden’s approval rating is about on par with President Donald Trump’s at this point of his tenure. And, as we all know, Republicans got shellacked in the 2018 congressional elections.  

It is far too cynical to view these mask decisions through a solely political lens. After all, the art of policymaking requires officials to consider and balance countless objectives. Their electoral survival is just one of them.

There are parallels that can be found elsewhere in the political arena. While Portland is dropping its mask mandate — leaving people and organizations free to make their own decisions — the city council simultaneously outlawed the sale of flavored tobacco. This comes on the heels of a city-wide referendum opening wide the availability of cannabis.  

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

Similarly, lawmakers in Augusta are preparing to fight over how it might spend millions upon millions of dollars of “surplus” revenue. More than $100 million annually is expected to come from “sin taxes” on tobacco products. Some legislators are looking to spend nearly $10 million each year to try to help Mainers cease using tobacco and reduce that $100 million revenue line.  

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

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

When it comes to tobacco use, everyone agrees that the product is unhealthy and a great way to earn an early grave. But the freedom to make bad choices is one we generally offer to people. Hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue has a real impact on state government, even if large portions of it are spent on tobacco-related programs and addressing tobacco-resulting health conditions.

So is outlawing tobacco the right call? Tax it? Leave it legal, but spend money combating it? No simple answers.

The same is true with marijuana. It has gone from “criminal” to “essential” in record speed. But recent studies show that its use may damage lungs, albeit in a different way than tobacco. Should it remain legal? Should we outlaw smoking it in favor of other products? Other studies hint that cannabis-derived oils may be effective at blocking COVID.  

But you know what else helps block COVID? N95 masks. But mandates supporting those are falling nationwide.

Masks, COVID, marijana and tobacco; all come with trade offs. And there isn’t a simple answer to policy questions surrounding them  

Take a deep breath and look inward for responsible decisions.

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.