Within one month, the Health Ministry will release a government bill authorizing the healthcare system to sue American, British, Japanese and Israeli tobacco companies to compensate it for expenses incurred from treating smoking- related diseases. This could total NIS 14 billion for damages over the last seven years – which is the time set for civil action by the statute of limitations.

Ministry director-general Prof. Ronni Gamzu confirmed to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday night that such a bill would be prepared within a month and presented for the approval of the cabinet and the Knesset.

Gamzu spoke on Tuesday about his interest in the state suing the tobacco companies at a meeting of the Knesset Labor, Social Welfare and Health Committee.

“I am an enemy of all the tobacco companies and all those who benefit economically from smoking,” he said. “I will not compromise on this matter.”

The economic cost of smoking in Israel has been estimated at NIS 8b. a year, a figure which includes medical treatment for smokers and those who have been affected by second-hand smoke, hospitalization, allotments for patient disability, reduction in tax income because patients could no longer work, reduced workloads because of smoking breaks, fires and more.

The government takes in only NIS 5b. a year in tobacco taxes, according to senior Health Ministry officials.

The ministry thus follows the example of Canada and several of the US states which have been using legislation to get compensation from the four huge tobacco conglomerates.

Following similar lawsuits by Canadian provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario, the province of Quebec last week brought a suit against the tobacco companies for $60b. in compensation for medical care for patients with tobacco-related diseases.

The Canadian Supreme Court ruled in 2005 in a landmark 9-0 decision that such legislation is well founded and covered by the constitution.

Fourteen years ago, the 50 US states reached a series of five settlements with the tobacco conglomerates, which would pay them over 25 years a total of $246b. for the costs of treating victims of tobacco.

Last July the Supreme Court called for the urgent enactment of supporting legislation for the initiation of such lawsuits, which will be a renewal of a NIS 7.6b. lawsuit by Clalit Health Services, the largest health fund, against the tobacco companies. This will also enable other healthcare providers to follow suit.

In the 1990s, following the successes in this area in the US, attorney Amos Hausner – who formulated large portions of Israeli legislation on smoking – initiated the idea of suing tobacco companies in Israel. Hausner was one of Clalit’s lawyers in the case.

Asked to comment, Hausner congratulated Gamzu for adopting the policy.

“The health system needs this compensation from the tobacco companies like air to breathe.

The ministry constantly says it lacks the money to fund thousands of new hospital beds. This will provide the money. Residents of Minnesota, which has a much smaller population, are receiving $7b. – while the Israeli healthcare system is suffocating.”

The ministry said that last year, 64 children were poisoned and needed to be hospitalized because they swallowed cigarette butts that had been thrown away in the streets.

When acting committee chairman MK Orly Levy-Abecassis asked why municipal inspectors that do not hand out fines against violation of no-smoking laws are not penalized, Gamzu said that there was currently no legal option for punishing municipalities that did not enforce the laws.

Incidentally, the uncle of the MK, former Lod mayor Maxim Levy, died prematurely of a heart attack attributed to his heavy smoking.

In two weeks, new laws barring smoking in various open-air locations, including bus stations and train platforms, will come into effect. Gamzu said he will stress to government offices that state workers are absolutely forbidden to smoke except outdoors and at a distance from entrances. He said those who violate the law would be punished.

A full feature on a recent academic conference on Tobacco or Health will appear on The Health page on Sunday, June 24.

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