The establishment of a new Health Ministry unit to reduce the effects on health of tobacco use was approved by the cabinet on Sunday. The ministers also decided to reduce the number of places where smoking is allowed and to restrict advertising and marketing of products.

Next month, the ministry will present legislation aimed at carrying out some aspects of the proposals.

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However, the Finance Ministry – which collects huge amounts of taxes on tobacco and has long opposed efforts to reduce smoking such as allowing a dedicated excise tax to fund public education – has asked for twice the suggested time – 180 rather than 90 days – to propose a hike in tobacco taxes, and has not committed itself to allocating NIS 50 million to fund the new unit.

In addition, Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman – who at last year’s No Smoking Day press conference declined to comment on prohibiting cigarette vending machines and said he would oppose requiring graphic images of blackened lungs, yellow teeth and other shots of smoking damage on cigarette packs because they were “not esthetic” – backtracked on Sunday from the new ministry recommendations against duty-free sales at airports and sea ports, saying they would not now be part of the reform.

Prof. Greg Connolly, a senior public health expert at Harvard University who has voluntarily advised the Israel Cancer Association and other anti-smoking organizations for 25 years, said at Litzman’s press conference that Israel has fallen behind in reducing smoking in recent years. Legislation emptied Irish pubs of tobacco smoke not long ago, without using threats, arrests and fines, as people recognized that they must observe the new law.

“You won’t smell tobacco smoke there anymore,” said Connolly.

Years ago, Israel used to import 5.2 billion cigarettes from the US every year, but despite all efforts to reduce smoking here, the figure has gone beyond 6 billion, he added, “and that money [the taxes on profits] will go to pay my pension, even though I don’t smoke.”

Connolly praised the Israeli public health system as one of the best in the world, but added: “When it comes to tobacco, you are not last, but not far from the last,” even though Israel’s early legislation – initiated by anti-tobacco lawyers and other activists – to restrict smoking in public spaces was in 1983 “ahead of the world.”

However, these measures were all initiated as private bills by individual MKs or small groups, but not by the ministry or the government.

Israel, advised Connolly on a visit, “must join the rest of the developed world on smoking. This is a cure of heart disease, lung cancer and other disorders” that kill 10,000 Israelis a year, either through active or passive smoking.

“You have a cure; now implement it. There is only one group that will suffer from this plan – the tobacco industry. This will help the Philip Morris company [the leading tobacco producer and marketer in the US].”

The committee that formulated the recommendations brought to the cabinet was headed by Health Ministry director-general Dr. Ronni Gamzu, who was asked by Litzman to take the assignment. In a few months, he and experts inside the ministry as well as others outside, such as Israel Cancer Association chairman Prof. Eliezer Robinson, formulated recommendations. “We are at a crucial crossroads,” said Gamzu.

But anti-tobacco activists on the committee said it was a long way from making recommendations to carrying them out and reducing the smoking rate, which according to Gamzu has not budged downward in three years compared to significant declines in the Western and even the Third World.

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar will decide on an experimental plan for smoke-free schools, at several educational institutions. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan will chair a team to formulate a plan to reduce environmental damage caused by cigarette butts.

Litzman praised the committee for its “fast work.”

“Smoking is terrible,” he said. “It hurts not only the smoker but also the people nearby. We have not accepted all recommendations, such as cancelling duty-free sales of tobacco [at ports and airports], but maybe we will get it later. Some say that it can increase smuggling. In general, more money raised as tobacco taxes will be able to reduce the cost to the public of water and gasoline. But the finance minister will decide this.”

Gamzu noted that one of his proposals is to boost smoking inspection of public areas with a band of part-time student employees who, in addition to municipal inspectors, would give out fines. Some municipalities, such as Tel Aviv, are better than others, but there remains much lack of enforcement of existing laws, the director-general said.

He added that the high rate of smoking among Israeli Arab men – above 50 percent compared to a smoking rate of 28% of Jewish men and a 23.3% average of the whole adult population – “drives us crazy.”

This high rate, leading to many unnecessary deaths, also drags upward the general smoking rate. “People are murdered by cigarettes; people commit suicide with their own cigarettes,” Gamzu said.

Haim Geva-Haspil, the coordinator of the committee who works in smoking prevention in the ministry, said that the Seminar Hakibbutzim College in Tel Aviv has become the first in the country to bar smoking on its whole campus, indoors and out. But in the US, a growing number of university and college campuses have already prohibited lighting up.

Litzman declined to explain why he had not announced in his previous two No Smoking Day press conferences since taking office any legislative initiatives to reduce smoking and urged only educational efforts among the public, especially the young.

He also did not say whether Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is formally health minister, would accept the invitation extended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to all presidents and prime minister around the world to attend a conference on smoking prevention in New York in September.

Netanyahu, who is known for his fondness for cigars, is scheduled to be at the UN in New York at the same time to speak at the General Assembly.

Asked to comment by The Jerusalem Post, Amos Hausner, chairman of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking – who has worked for the cause for the past 25 years and kicked it off with a lawsuit that led to the barring of smoking on all flights to and from Israel, said he was glad to see the official report submitted to the cabinet, but “it is too little and too late.”

He said that private initiatives have always been the driving factor behind change in the face of Health Ministry inaction.

Hausner’s NIS 7.6 billion lawsuit against the tobacco companies on behalf of Clalit Health Services for compensation for the health fund’s expenses in treating damage from smoking will finally be heard by Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia next month, before her retirement.

Hausner was disappointed that the committee’s recommendations do not include control of cigarettes’ contents as a “dangerous drug” and the possibility of ordering the removal of menthol, nicotine and ammonia from them.

He also said the committee has not gone as far as Australia an other advanced countries that have required all cigarettes to be sold in uniform plain packages and packets, so no brand has an advantage of graphics over another; this has been proven to reduce sales.

Israeli cigarette manufacturer Dubek issued a statement on Sunday night protesting the new anti-smoking measures.

“Dubek opposes legislation that significantly harms Israeli industry while giving foreign companies an advantage. Antismoking laws throughout the world were formed in coordination with tobacco manufacturers, while in Israel action is taken aggressively and disproportionately, trampling on a veteran Israeli company and harming the livelihood of thousands of people,” the company said.

“Decision makers should realize that for international manufacturers, Israel is but a fly on the wall. Losses in this country will not hurt them and they have huge advertising budgets. They should, however, think about the fateful implications for the last remaining Israeli tobacco maker. Dubek has never resisted decisions aimed at curbing the number of smokers.”

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