Wearing masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID is for the greater good

It was in the 70s. A friend of my sister was taking a flight that had a long layover at the airport in Raleigh, North Carolina. She decided to take a cab into town to see what she could see.

His most lasting impression was, “Everyone smokes! Everywhere I went, people were smoking! She wasn’t from the South and had probably never spent 10 minutes in the tobacco-growing state of North Carolina. And, yes, in the 70s and before, everyone smoked.

The children were smoking. Some of them. Secondary schools had outdoor smoking areas for students. Adult smokers, women and men. My mom’s two best friends were smoking at our kitchen table while drinking coffee.

My mother was raised by a strict Methodist mother who not only did not approve of smoking and drinking, but also of taking aspirin and drinking coke. Mom didn’t smoke. But other people have. In airports and on planes, in restaurants and even in hospitals. Unless someone was under an “oxygen tent,” in which case there was a sign on the bedroom door: “No Smoking. Oxygen Use.”

So what happened? We decided, some of us, that smoking was bad for our health even though the cigarette companies denied it. And we decided that non-smokers should be protected from the smoke generated by smokers.

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Smoking was mostly prohibited in public places. All those romantic movie scenes of couples smoking in bars: gone. The cigarette after sex: finished. The low, sexy, deep voice of the older smoker: Gone. Sitting around small cocktail tables listening to jazz in a club while smoking: Gone.

It was a big cultural shift, and it was weird. It felt like a loss. And it was, no doubt. But the tobacco companies lost their battle to convince people that cigarettes were not harmful to health.

Given the reaction of some Americans to mask mandates in schools and on public transportation, I doubt that bans on smoking in public places can be passed today. They would probably make cigarettes free and encourage smoking as a sign of freedom from government tyranny. (In fact, the Virginia Slims brand sold the idea that smoking was a sign of liberation for women. “You’ve come a long way, baby.”)

Governor Youngkin bans mandatory mask-wearing in schools and elsewhere. I don’t see any difference between allowing people to go unmasked wherever they want and allowing people to smoke wherever they want. Both endanger people who choose not to have cigarette smoke or coronavirus in their lungs.

In the name of individualism and individual freedom, anti-maskers and smokers are on the same side: “My freedom to do what I love outweighs your freedom to be protected from disease.”

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People have complained about the anti-smoking laws. But they did not threaten to withhold money from schools or hospitals. They didn’t threaten to shoot people. Not that I remember anyway. They did not threaten to overthrow the government. There were no armed militias of smokers.

Gradually, people realized that the tobacco industry was lying when it said that smoking did not cause cancer or other health problems. And they took their smoking outside. There was a kind of community outside where people were taking smoke breaks. I even thought about starting to smoke so I could spend time with them. There were some interesting people smoking outside the front doors.

It’s a sad and strange political moment where people’s identities seem to be tied to practices that can cause death. I don’t think even the identity of the Marlboro man was that tied to that particular addiction. He didn’t sit astride his horse threatening to shoot anyone who dared challenge his right to smoke anywhere. He didn’t wear the scowl of anti-masks.

Smoking was supposed to sweeten you up. Maybe they should sell little nicotine-saturated filters to fit inside the masks. Would that make them more acceptable?

– Write to Patricia Hunt, Staunton columnist, at [email protected]

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