The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 resulted not only in mortal harm to many Americans (tallying 248,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S. as of this writing), it also engendered political strife over regulations imposed at state and local levels to help check the outbreak — most notably mandates requiring the wearing of masks, which many citizens objected to as an infringement of their personal freedoms.
A popular anti-mask meme compared COVID with smoking and questioned why, if the government had never forced anyone to give up the harmful activity of cigarette smoking in order to save lives, it nonetheless was compelling people to don face coverings for the same ostensible reason:
The comparison offered in this meme was logically flawed, however.
Cigarette smoking undeniably poses substantial health risks: not just to smokers themselves, but also to others around them due to the effects of secondhand smoke, exposure to which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates contributes to approximately 41,000 deaths per year. That’s why over the last several decades, governments — even if they have not absolutely banned smoking — have regulated where people may smoke. Many countries have enacted laws restricting smoking in most enclosed public spaces (such as stores, restaurants, schools, and airports) and in areas surrounding those spaces, while leaving smokers free to puff away in places where their secondhand smoke will not adversely affect others (such as in their homes, in their automobiles, and in outdoor areas away from other people).
Likewise, COVID-19 — because it is contagious — not only poses serious health risks to those who have been infected by the coronavirus, but also to others who may contract it through exposure to them. Hence, the advent of mask wearing regulations intended to help prevent infected persons from spreading the disease to others.
But, just as smoking is not absolutely prohibited by the government, neither has going mask-free been absolutely prohibited by the government. Mask mandates require citizens to wear face coverings while in public spaces, but not in the privacy of their households, vehicles, or outdoor areas where proper social distancing is maintained.
So, contrary to the conceit of the meme displayed above, regulations regarding smoking and COVID-19 are quite similar: They both aim to save lives by minimizing potentially harmful exposures in public spaces, while allowing citizens the liberty to act as they choose in private and when they are sufficiently distanced so as not to harm others. In either case, social distancing is key.