MK Miki Rosenthal (Zionist Union) accused Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and his ministry of indirectly causing the deaths of thousands of Israelis every year by their “complete apathy” to the risks of smoking.
Speaking on Wednesday in the Knesset’s Special Committee for the Fight Against Drugs and Alcohol, Rosenthal was the only one present who mentioned the Channel 2 TV expose by Haim Rivlin. That program focused on aides to Litzman, who for NIS 4,000 cash in envelopes, arranged meetings with Litzman and his associate director- general Prof. Itamar Grotto for journalists posing as electronic cigarette company representatives to request that they be allowed to market the harmful products without ministry interference.
“According to Israeli law, behavior that results in death, even if without intent, is causing death by negligence.
In the case of the Health Ministry and especially of Minister Litzman, this is absolute apathy to the deaths of tens of thousands of citizens each year,” said Rosenthal.
The TV expose argued that because Litzman is a follower of the Ger Hassidic sect and is close to the Ger daily paper Hamodia, which earns large sums from tobacco advertising, he took no action against tobacco while deputy minister and now as minister.
There have been reports that the Israel Police or the Civil Service Commission will investigate the affair.
“It is proven that preventing tobacco advertising reduces the number of smokers and that information campaigns on the dangers of smoking save lives. Despite this,” said Rosenthal, “the minister decided on shady grounds and out of vested interests because of his affiliation with Hamodia to indirectly cause the deaths of many Israelis.”
Committee chairman MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) said that the Treasury takes in NIS 6 billion in tobacco taxes each year. The companies spend NIS 60m. a year on advertising, she said, while only NIS 6m. annually is spent on prevention and smoking cessation.
“If there were 1,000 casualties in a war, a prime minister would give back the keys [to his office],” said MK Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid). “There are more than 8,000 dead per year from smoking, but the health minister does nothing.”
Grotto told the committee of a number of moves the ministry will take to reduce smoking.
“We were among the leaders in anti-smoking legislation, but we have fallen behind and certainly feel there is room for improvement,” conceded Grotto, who is in charge of public health in the ministry. “We are preparing legislation on this matter and will bring it up very soon.”
Among the measures is a prohibition of tobacco advertising in the press, the Internet and all other media. However, a few years ago when Litzman vacated his seat as deputy minister, he publicly came out against such legislation and instead urged that three tobacco ads be put in newspapers for each one that opposed smoking.
Although Litzman and Grotto met with the Channel 2 journalists posing as electronic cigarette merchants and said they were not contemplating restrictions, Grotto told the committee that the ministry now “wants to do the same regulation of e-cigs as for other tobacco products.” He added that current restrictions on conventional cigarettes can be placed “immediately” on e-cigarettes.
Grotto added that the ministry wants to expand the number of public places where smoking is forbidden – including events at open stadiums, zoos and outdoor performances – and to increase the distance from kindergartens and playgrounds where one may light up.
He also said that making it illegal to smoke in a car with children is also being contemplated.
The ministry now also favors canceling legal “smoking rooms” in restaurants, pubs and the Knesset. This does not require legislation, he said.
The ministry will invest in media information campaigns to reduce smoking, especially in the Arab male sector, 40% of whom smoke, compared to 19% in the general population. A national telephone line run by an outside provider and supervised by the ministry will be set up to provide information and help people stop smoking, Grotto said.
Graphic images of damage to the body caused by smoking, such as dirty lungs and teeth, will be required on cigarette packets will be required, even though Litzman has strongly opposed this on “aesthetic grounds,” Grotto stated.
But just two days after the publication of Israeli university research showing that young adults learn to smoke in the IDF, no mention was made of the report or the possibility of barring sales of tobacco products at all IDF bases and offices. Neither did the ministry make any promises on increasing enforcement of no-smoking laws by local authorities, who are now responsible, but whose fining of NIS 1,000 per cigarette is very poor or nonexistent, including at pubs, wedding halls and Jerusalem Light Rail stations.
Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking chairman, attorney Amos Hausner, who a few weeks ago said that in a short meeting with Litzman that the minister rejected “all” his smoking- prevention ideas, including some accepted by Grotto, said on Wednesday that he was pleased with the promise to close down smoking rooms.
“These force employees to be exposed constantly to tobacco smoke,” he said.
“The barring of smoking in jets was carried out 15 years ago, but former stewardesses and stewards came down with disease or died from their exposure.”
Hausner called for much more vigorous enforcement of no-smoking laws.