Health Ministry has just one enforcer for laws against cigarette and alcohol ads

Effie Schaefer, who has a master’s degree in public health and management, is the only employee of the department he heads.

December 22, 2015 03:09
3 minute read.
No-Smoking Sign

No-Smoking Sign. (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)

The Health Ministry’s department for enforcing the laws on smoking in public and the advertising of alcoholic beverages, established by former director-general Prof. Ronni Gamzu, has only one staff member left, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Effie Schaefer, who has a master’s degree in public health and management, is the only employee of the department he heads.

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Located in the capital’s Givat Shaul neighborhood, it began as the ministry’s pharmaceutical crime unit in 2007, but then was expanded into a department. In 2013, it was further expanded into a division with slightly more manpower and responsibilities.

These include dealing with cybercrime, counterfeit drugs and nutritional supplements, dangerous drugs including anabolic steroids and others sold in kiosks around the country, as well as supervising municipal enforcement of no-smoking laws and print advertising of alcohol (which must appear with a health warning).

Earlier this year, during one week of intensive activity named Operation Pangea conducted under the auspices of Interpol and the Customs Authority, the division shut down 29 websites, inspected 1,362 packages and seized 105 of them, confiscated 40,221 units of drugs suspected of being counterfeit or otherwise illegal worth $200,000, investigated 78 individuals and arrested five.

It also carried out one public awareness campaign. This year, at least three people were arrested for impersonating medical doctors, and intensive action was carried out with other enforcement units against illegal labs and suppliers.

Gamzu directed the division two years ago to set up a separate department relating to tobacco and alcohol, but it was given only two professional staffers, who had no ministry vehicle. However, under the new minister, MK Ya’acov Litzman, and ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the department has been left with only Schaefer.

When Litzman was no longer deputy health minister and just an MK, he opposed a Knesset bill promoted by Gamzu to make it illegal to advertise tobacco products in the print media. It was claimed then that Litzman, a Gur hassid, had a forgiving view on tobacco advertising because Hamodia, the Gur paper, makes large sums from the tobacco advertising of Dubek and other tobacco companies.

The department was successful in removing about a dozen illegal cigarette vending machines following complaints and following up more than 2,000 public complaints on smoking violations by contacting local authorities, but many times the local authority does not initiate enforcement. As the department has only one staffer without a vehicle, the nationally coordinated enforcement operations with municipalities have been suspended.

It has been unable to persuade the Jerusalem Municipality and Mayor Nir Barkat to enforce the 2011 law that made it illegal to smoke on the platforms of the Light Rail, used by 140,000 daily passengers. Not a single NIS 1,000 fine has been handed out by city inspectors to the hundreds of daily violators of the law. The ministry’s top decision makers have also failed to issue regulations to implement a 2012 law that bars smoking at all roofed bus stops around the country.

There are no signs posted prohibiting smoking and no fines have been issued.

Asked to comment, the ministry conceded that it has only one employee – Schafer – working in the department.

“The law for the prevention of smoking in public places and exposure to smoke is, in fact, under the responsibility of the health minister, and he has the authority to set regulations and issue orders that require approval of the Knesset Health Committee,” said the ministry spokeswoman.

“It is the responsibility of the local authorities and the Israel Police to enforce the regulations in the law, but the law does not give Health Ministry employees the right to carry out enforcement or give fines.”

Relatively very few fines have been handed out by the local authorities against violators, according to the annual Smoking Report.

The ministry said it “acts to advance enforcement of the struggle against smoking with a variety of strategies, and many people are in various positions, such as public health services, education and health promotion and the department for the prevention of smoking in the division of enforcement and supervision.”

Schaefer himself “is in constant touch with the local authorities on enforcement according to the urgency of the various issues for which the department is responsible,” the spokeswoman said.

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