(photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
After 35 years in which smoking has been barred in closed wards of psychiatric hospitals, the Health Ministry has initiated a state bill to allow patients, staffers and visitors to light up.
“Allowing smoking in the closed psychiatric wards in hospitals is worse than [allowing it] in prison cells,” said Amos Hausner, chairman of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking.
“The prisoners are there for a reason – their past behavior. Those locked up in psychiatric wards are there because of their health problems. And yet the state is going to expose them, against their will in many cases, to the poisons in cigarettes.
“The government is forcing them to get sick, this time physically,” he added. “They are going to get cancer, heart disease, stroke and other serious disorders in addition to their mental problems, which in many cases do not even enable them to complain.”
Hausner, the country’s leading anti-tobacco lawyer, noted that the US Supreme Court ruled in the famous case of Helling v. McKinney (1993) that smoking in prison cells violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, as it constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” Patients confined to psychiatric wards, he inferred, are being similarly punished.
Twenty years ago, Hausner succeeded in getting smoking prohibited during international airline flights, when he explained to Israel’s Supreme Court the danger to flight attendants of continual exposure to tobacco smoke. Smoking was first banned in hospitals in 1982. “On top of all this, there is the risk that smoking could be used as a threat against those patients who do not behave ‘nicely’ and a reward for those who do.”
The rate of smoking-related diseases is much higher among psychiatric patients, Hausner continued.
According to some in the Health Ministry, “let them smoke themselves to death.”
Eyal Orev, the elected representative of nurses at the Beersheba Mental Health Center, wrote an urgent letter of protest to ministry associate director- general Prof. Itamar Grotto, saying that “I ask you not to recommend such an amendment. The exclusion of closed departments from the law will give legitimacy to backing down on no-smoking laws, and a return to the period when smoking in hospitals was officially allowed and cigarettes were even sold in the kiosks. Not only the patients will be harmed but we, the medical staff, will also suffer.”
Asked for an explanation for the change, ministry spokesman Eyal Basson said: “The reality that has always existed is that patients smoke in closed psychiatric wards. This is due to the fact that many of the these patients smoke, as well as some staff members themselves, and because they are in a locked ward, they can’t go outside to light up.”
Basson added that it would be “an exception” to laws barring smoking in public places and be in effect for three years, during which smoking would be limited to a separate room and efforts will be made to train staff members about smoking cessation, develop medical treatment protocols and purchase appropriate medication.