Young men smoking near Ashdod.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Money and politics are close bedfellows and have been for centuries.
Yet, while most public attention has been focused recently on allegations and suspicions purportedly tied to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, another alleged “cash nexus” incident involving the Health Ministry was aired recently on Channel 2.
A four-part investigative report that began last Monday night shows a reporter for Hamodia newspaper receiving NIS 4,000 to arrange meetings between a fictitious importer of electronic cigarettes and high-level officials in the Health Ministry, including Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman. It just so happens that Hamodia is owned and controlled by members of the Ger Hassidic movement and that Litzman is a Ger hassid with ties to the paper’s staff and management.
The Channel 2 report raised suspicions that the present laissez-faire policy in the Health Ministry toward the regulation of cigarette companies might be connected to ties between these companies and individuals close to Litzman, including some connected to Hamodia. For instance, Channel 2 found that during 2013-2014 when the Knesset debated and ultimately rejected legislation that sought to ban cigarette advertisements and other steps recommended by the Gimzo Committee for the Reduction of Cigarette Smoke Damage, Dubek, a local tobacco company, took out 53 ads in Hamodia. The number of Dubek ads the following year, after the bill was defeated, dropped to just three.
Dubek claimed it advertised heavily in haredi papers earlier as part of a special campaign and that more ads are taken out in haredi papers than in other print journalism because the haredi population is not exposed to the Internet.
The Channel 2 report also revealed that Litzman agreed to meet with someone he thought was a representative of an electronic-cigarette company even though, according to the guidelines of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to which Israel is a signatory, meetings with tobacco lobbyists are prohibited. The US Surgeon General has concluded that e-cigarettes can expose users to several potentially harmful chemicals, including nicotine, carbonyl compounds and volatile organic compounds.
Amos Hausner, chairman of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking told Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, The Jerusalem Post’s Health and Science Editor, that in private meetings Litzman opposed various steps designed to curb cigarette smoking.
During their meeting, Hausner said Litzman did not accept banning smoking rooms in public places, even though they are being eliminated all over the world. He also said Litzman told him that he is against graphic images of health damage from smoking placed on cigarette packets, arguing that it was “not aesthetic,” and suggested, perhaps in jest, that a “picture of Jerusalem be used instead.”
Cigarette smoking is no joke. In a Health Ministry report that was published in May of last year, it was estimated that about 8,000 died in 2015 from illnesses related to smoking – 800 from passive smoking. The health costs related to smoking were estimated to be NIS 3.7 billion.
The same report estimated that cigarette companies spent nearly NIS 32 billion in 2014 on marketing and advertising. In 2014 and 2015, the Health Ministry had no advertising budget for warning of the dangers of cigarette smoking.
In response to the Channel 2 report, Litzman’s office said: “This is a smokescreen without one sliver of truth. This is a well-scheduled and organized campaign by opposition members and others aimed at bashing and hurting the most respected cabinet minister in Israel.”
We would like to believe Litzman, a respected minister who has done important work and during his long career has never been implicated in a corruption scheme.
However, the Channel 2 report raises questions regarding various functionaries close to him, such as the Hamodia reporter who received money to arrange meetings with Health Ministry officials.
Litzman is head of a ministry that is supposed to promote health. Ministers need to work in a healthy environment, without functionaries who allegedly bring with them corruption. It is time Litzman cleans up his office.