The Cigarette and The Mask

“Just as I catch my bags and see if I’ve been clipped, I noticed that he’s wearing sunglasses on with his surgical mask pulled down below his chin and has an unlit cigarette in his mouth.”

While I walk back to my apartment with bags full of groceries under my arms, I stop at the cross section waiting for the walking signal to light up, seemingly unaware of the bike screeching by me. “Hey, watch out, man!”, the bicyclist yells as he peddles past me almost knocking into my groceries. He speeds by just narrowly missing oncoming traffic as he heads downtown. Just as I catch my bags and see if I’ve been clipped, I noticed that he’s wearing sunglasses on with his surgical mask pulled down below his chin and has an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

Now, I would hope that he was not getting ready to smoke while biking, but it sure looked like he had smoked a few or more cigarettes. We were both outside at the time, of course, and I could assume that he maybe just likes to wear a mask indoors and would rather smoke a cigarette while he biked or afterwards to enjoy the rush while getting some needed fresh air. The confluence of events of almost getting hit by this biker along with the scene of him having an unlit cigarette in his mouth, a mask under his chin, and no helmet on as he sped through foot traffic without regard for anybody else was so laden with irony that I couldn’t happen to notice all the ironies afoot.

If a commercial could be made about this bicyclist, it would be quite entertaining. “Protect yourself from COVID in the short-term, but don’t forget about the long-term risks to one’s health!” In that commercial, it would show the bicyclist being transformed from having a cigarette in his mouth to having none with a nicotine patch or gum if it’s anti-smoking or if it’s pro-safety to have him properly wearing a biking helmet rather than not having one.

These kind of public health or public safety campaigns are quite common in our culture especially when it comes to the dangers of smoking and the dangers of not wearing a helmet while cycling or biking. Now, after almost two years, we now have quite substantive public health messages around wearing a face mask or adequate face covering, especially while indoors, to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus. The same public health messaging was quite prevalent at first when it came to social or physical distancing before the arrival of tested and approved vaccines.

Undoubtedly, these public health messages have saved thousands of lives and done much to further the progress of the current vaccination campaigns. We now know society-wide how masks can help prevent the spread of viruses just as we knew starting in the 1980s and later in the 1990s the harm that smoking can do long-term to one’s health. It took a few decades but now smoking is much less prevalent than it used to be, and the risks are well-known. The same could be said about wearing a protective helmet when biking or riding a motorcycle. It took a while for these messages to be ingrained in our society, but they protect not only our health long-term but also our safety in the short-term.

The advent of mask wearing in a pandemic has not fully set in for some people but for most people, the public health messages had a massive impact and after some initial confusion and the lack of supplies for protective gear, almost two years later, that public health messaging has set in across society. You could argue if the advent of mask wearing in public will have the same longevity or the same need years from now as anti-smoking campaigns would. While virus and diseases can become endemic, they can also possibly burn out much quicker than the long-term health risks that will remain with us after the pandemic such as smoking or drinking alcohol.

While the public health and safety messages around mask wearing, helmet wearing, and not smoking especially near a building have made people healthier and safer, I fear that other health warnings or messaging has been rather lackluster especially during the pandemic. Wearing a mask and not picking up a cigarette are easy enough for society to adopt, but the messaging should not end there.

In the age of the Internet, social media, and seemingly endless modes of messaging mediums, I have not noticed any uptick in making the public aware about the benefits of exercising daily or multiple times per week. I also have not noticed an effort to educate people on what a well-balanced diet looks like or what foods to avoid that are both addictive and unhealthy. Smoking is a bad habit but so is not having a proper diet. I am not saying that people should be told what to eat and what to drink but I don’t see the harm in sharing more messaging about what a healthy breakfast, lunch, or dinner looks like or to give examples to adults, especially young people in college or in their 20s.

In addition to a proper diet, bringing to people’s attention the need to exercise has never been a real part of public health messaging. The lack of public and/or outdoor gyms provided by towns and cities has contributed to other health issues that have reared their head during the pandemic. COVID-19 may be with us now but other health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are not going away anytime soon.

For the almost two years of the pandemic, there was a real opportunity that was squandered for the public to hear about other ways to stay healthy and well. Viruses make people fearful and anxious but instead of just saying “wear a mask!” and “be socially distant!”, other messages about sleeping 7-8 hours a night, reducing our time staring at screens, maintaining a healthy diet, and making sure to exercise each day or most days was rarely ever thought of to be entered into public consciousness.

Even something as simple as telling people who were mainly indoors to take their vitamins each day especially both Vitamins C and D, which some people are deficient in especially in wintertime was completely neglected. I usually refrain from commenting on matters of public health but having done all these things for myself as many others do on their own accord, I don’t see why this kind of public health messaging hasn’t caught on. It doesn’t take more than a minute or two to discuss proper habits to build such as having more hours of sleep, what goes into a healthy diet, why exercise is important, or what are the benefits of vitamins.

I am not sure of how much money has been spent on anti-smoking, anti-drunk driving campaigns over the years but I’m sure it’s much more than what could also been address to the public. Now, in addition to the ills of drinking, smoking, we know now why mask wearing is important during a pandemic with an infectious virus that spreads easily. I don’t think that we should stop there and to keep trying to advocate for other commonly known public health matters that sadly still go largely ignored in terms of messaging campaigns.

From the local to the national level, after the pandemic is over, I would strongly recommend investing much more money, time, and even public infrastructure (outdoor gyms, for example) in building awareness of different public health matters that have remained largely unaddressed. From sleep to diet to exercise to even how to manage anxiety and stress properly, these important messages will affect people’s long-term health positively.

We know messages have worked in the past as I mentioned with wearing a helmet, not smoking in public places, and wearing a mask when others are near you. Lives have been saved and society has been improved because of those messages. When it comes to everyone’s long-term health, I would ask us all to think bigger to improve messaging around other public health needs, so we don’t end up only receiving advice on protecting the public’s health during a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

Stay on Top of Things

“Staying on top of the things in your life from finances to exercise to managing your home are all ways to have peace of mind. There are a lot of things in life we have no control over so I encourage you all reading this article to put those things you can control on your to-do list each day and each week.”

It can be hard for a lot of us these days given what’s going on in the world. It is easy to be stressed out, anxious, and generally worried about the future. I would say that on the whole people don’t do well with uncertainty and not knowing what the future holds. It can be quite daunting not know what will happen a month from now, six months from now, or even a year from now. When I think of myself who prefers certainty and planning things out on a week-by-week basis, it can be frustrating to have to change or amend plans due to lack of feasibility or to remember that the world has changed, and you have to adapt to it.

Instead of fighting an uphill battle against the various changes going on in our society right now not alone to due to the pandemic but other economic and social factors, you have to learn to swim with the tide and to adapt as best as you can. Part of doing that is also knowing what it is strictly under your control each day and exercising that kind of control as best as you can. Given a lot of things in our lives now are out of our own control, the best way to combat that fact is to stay on top of the things we can control and to do them to the best of our abilities.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article about the common-sense kind of wisdom of U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven, who said that the best way to start your day is “to make your bed” and it relates to having a sense of control in a world where we often lack control. It is also a larger part of staying on top of things or tasks in your life that will always need your attention and won’t get done without your effort. Making your bed is a good habit to build each day and will make you feel better right away for taking action over a thing that you have direct control over.

Other things involve getting enough sleep each night (7-8 hours preferably) and managing that aspect of your life well so you can perform better in your work or schooling. Staying on top of things also involves our diet and our exercise routine. These things are more open ended but establishing what is a good diet for you, buying the food items each week that contribute to your diet, and then cooking the meals to reflect that diet are important things to stay on top of in your life. The general guidance for exercise is 3-4x a week and I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you exercise whether its weightlifting, yoga, running, sports, or even martial arts. The important thing to do is to keep track of how much exercise you’re getting each week, how consistent you are being with it, and whether you are seeing any improvement(s) in your life based on your exercise regime.

I also want to prioritize the importance of control over one’s domain or where you are living. You will feel better when your place is clean, when things are organized, and when you are not living in a place that is messy and unkempt. Part of being a responsible adult is to independently take care of yourself with your grooming, your appearance, but also your abode. Don’t let another thing that you have control over fall by the wayside. Take the necessary time to clean and to tidy your place up from the bathroom to the kitchen to the living room. Your self-esteem will be raised from doing that and you’ll be better off for exercising control of your living space, which is an important place where now we are working from more often and also studying from in this time of the pandemic.

When it comes to staying on top of things, it means making sure too that you are managing your finances whether it’s saving more money, not spending beyond your means, and recording your budget on a weekly or monthly basis. Financial management is a key thing to stay on top of and it will help you to organize your life in another necessary way. It is also a way to be in control because it’s your money and only you know where it’s going each month and how much money you have available to you.

Our own relationships with friends and family members are another aspect of our lives that we often overlook our control of. We can choose to associate with people who value us, respect us, and care about us and I would say that it’s important to prioritize those people, whether family, friends, or general acquaintances who value not only our time but who we are as human beings. You can control who you give your time and effort to in relationships and it’s important to exercise that right to let those people into your life who treat you well, who like you for who you are, and don’t try to belittle or demean you.

Lastly, I do want to mention that beyond taking care of your bed, your sleep, your diet and exercise, your finances, and your relationships, you have to take care of yourself. Mental health is extremely important as well as physical health these days and it’s important that you make time in your life to check in with yourself, to go easy on yourself in terms of not beating up on yourself too much for past mistakes. If you need to meditate or treat yourself to a movie or a video game or a hike on your own, I believe you should do so. If you need to talk to someone about your mental health in a private manner, I encourage it as well. Talking to a licensed professional is something you always have control over so you should feel free to do so if you need to help your mental health. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing that and it should not carry with it any kind of stigma or reservation.

Staying on top of the things in your life from finances to exercise to managing your home are all ways to have peace of mind. There are a lot of things in life we have no control over so I encourage you all reading this article to put those things you can control on your to-do list each day and each week. Please make it a priority to handle those pending things in your life that you alone are responsible for and don’t let these small things pile up.

You will feel better and happier for handling the small things well before you take on the big things. If you want to make a difference in the world, start by making a difference in your own life and see how that positive momentum will carry you forward. If you can handle your own business successfully, you will gain more confidence and be more self-reliant, which are positive traits when it comes to handling uncertainty, unease, or the inability to know what the future holds. Take things on one day at a time and do the things you can to the best of your ability as often as you can.