'Israeli smoking rate lowest ever, but still much to do'

Deputy health minister advocates tougher enforcement and raising taxes in annual report; Today is World No-Smoking day

May 31, 2010 16:19
4 minute read.
Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman.

litzman 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )


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Although the smoking rate among Israeli adults dropped in 2009 to its lowest-ever recorded level – 22.8 percent compared to 24.2% in the previous year, there is still much that can be done to lower it further, according to leading smoking-cessation activist and lawyer Amos Hausner.

As required by law, Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman presented his annual report on smoking in Israel at a press conference in his office on Sunday. World No-Smoking Day is observed around the globe on May 31.

Litzman, who does not smoke and who noted that his rabbi, the Admor of Gur, bars smoking in his institutions, said tobacco is terrible.

“Enforcement is the main thing. We have to raise tobacco taxes. Just two shekels more adds up to NIS 400 million a year, which is what the addition to the 2010 basket of health services was,” he said.

He said he would speak to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz about the need for higher taxes, but he did not state that such new income should be dedicated to anti-smoking activities and education rather than being used by the Treasury for its own purposes.

Litzman said he personally opposed requiring cigarette packets to display graphic images of black lungs and teeth to deter children and others from smoking, even though this has brought down smoking in many places around the world. “It is not esthetic,” he declared.

He conceded that while he has been busy examining reform proposals for dental treatment psychiatric care, his ministry has devoted less effort to preparing bills of the kind that have lowered smoking rates abroad. In New York, the smoking rate has dropped to 18%, while in California and Australia, it is down to 14%.

Hausner – who has been a one-man anti-smoking effort for decades by proposing legislation and filing lawsuits against numerous property owners and employers who violate no-smoking laws – said it was hard to prove what caused the Israeli rate to decline “significantly.”

In 1970, the smoking rate was over 40%, and “we never dreamed it would be halved,” he said. But there is “much that still has to be done, such as barring all tobacco advertising, cancelling duty-free sales of tobacco products at airports and seaports, prohibiting smoking rooms in public facilities and barring automatic cigarette vending machines.”

He also criticized the ministry for not suing violators of no-smoking laws. “Why does it leave it to me to do?” he said. “The Health Ministry must ensure enforcement of the laws and promote more legislation. The ministry must also sponsor anti-smoking public service announcements, which it doesn’t do at all. Only occasionally are they funded by voluntary or private organizations. The law barring the sale of fewer than 20 cigarettes at a time must be enforced so that children and teenagers are not encouraged to buy them when they have the money,” Hausner added. “Smoking should not be allowed in outdoor playgrounds and bus and train stations and in vehicles with child passengers.”

The statistics, collected by the Israel Center for Disease Control and other public and voluntary bodies, did not include rates of nargila (hookah) smoking, but only cigarettes. While the smoking rate in general has dropped, the rate among young people and Arab men has actually increased; the number of cigarettes smoked has not declined; and the rate of tobacco addiction in serving Israel Defense Forces personnel has remained steady.

Smokers today are very likely to be asked by doctors they consult whether they want to participate in health fund workshops to stop smoking and to get subsidized medications to help them quit, according to the latest statistics, but the workshops and drugs are not yet widely used.

According to ICDC head Prof. Tammy Shohat, 67% of smokers reported that they tried to stop and over 75% of those succeeded for a short time but returned to the deadly habit.

“Half said they want to kick the habit. About a quarter to a third say they smoke less since the launching of laws that bars lighting up in public places,” Shohat said.

Israel Cancer Association director-general Miri Ziv said that there are a few smokers who don’t get sick, apparently because of some genetic protection, but there are many who smoke only a couple cigarettes a day and come down with serious illness. A new ICA survey of a representative sample of Israeli Jews found that Israelis “are very disturbed about the health damage caused by smoking.”

Three-quarters of the public know that lighting up just one or two smokes a day can cause fatal illness. A similar share of those who responded to the poll said they are worried about a friend or relative who smokes and is risking his life, while 18% said the smell of smoke disturbs them, Ziv said.

She added that higher tobacco taxes discourage young people from smoking, but “not those who are already addicted.” She reported that only 16 municipalities fulfilled their legal responsibility of reporting how many fines they handed out to illegal smokers, and that many are reluctant to hand out fines even though they collect the money for their own municipal uses.

Ziv called on the Health Ministry to take action against tobacco companies, which in 2008 spent NIS 50 million on promotion, advertising and sponsorships of events (32% more than in 2007) even though these are barred by the World Health Organization’s Framework Agreement on Tobacco that Israel signed and ratified years ago.

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