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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
As the smoking rate in Israel remains steady, Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman is considering new measures to significantly bring it down, he said Sunday, at his first World No-Smoking Day press conference.
His proposals include charging tobacco companies so that an independent body can disseminate anti-smoking advertisements and education; restricting or eliminating cigarette vending machines, increasing the cigarette tax by an additional NIS 2 per packet; prohibiting tobacco companies from sponsoring youth and sports events, and demanding regular reports from municipalities on how they are enforcing no-smoking laws.
Litzman - a confirmed tobacco opponent, unlike his predecessor, Yitzhak Ben-Yizri, who has smoked for more than 65 years - was not involved in the preparation of the eighth annual report, but as the person in control of the ministry, he was required by law to present it to the Knesset.
At the press conference he was accompanied by ministry director-general Prof. Avi Yisraeli, who, when he was director-general of the Hadassah Medical Organization, was the first to prohibit smoking in his hospitals before the law banning such smoking took effect.
At the press conference in his Jerusalem office, Litzman indicated that there are some things not yet possible, such as levying a tobacco tax that would go directly toward smoking cessation programs and anti-smoking education rather than to the Treasury, or for the Health Ministry to take over enforcement of no-smoking laws from the negligent local authorities.
The adult smoking rate for 2007/08 was 24.2 percent, slightly higher than the previous year because the Arab male smoking rate increased to 54.51%, compared to 4.8% of Arab women, 28.1% among Jewish men and 18.7% among Jewish women.
But according to Dr. Tamar Shohat of the Israel Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the slightly lower national smoking figure published in last year's report is not relevant because a different type of study was used last time.
"Looking at a half-percent increase or decrease doesn't make sense. You have to look at the trend. The percentage of the population that smokes is going downward, but the decrease is slowing," she said.
In general, people smoke more up to the age of 55, after which fewer smoke.
Among eighth graders, 1.8% said they smoked daily, while an additional 4.5% reported that they smoked from time to time. The average age when pupils who smoked tried their first cigarette was 11.8 years among boys and 12.5 years among girls. Arab boys began even younger.
In the IDF, 31.5% of the men and 34% of the women said they had smoked when they enlisted, while 32% of the men and 32% of the women still smoked when they left mandatory service.
The smoking rate is significantly lower among those in the professional army, partly due to intensive educational activity by the IDF.
In the past year, the Health Ministry has prohibited the sale of nargila (hookah) equipment, as well as nargila tobacco, to youths, but this law is still not adequately enforced.
Israel Cancer Association (ICA) director-general Miri Ziv noted that every hour, one Israeli on average dies from tobacco-related diseases - a total of 10,000 people a year. They either smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke.
Smoking is thus the biggest cause of totally preventible disease.
"The tobacco companies have a huge amount of money to promote their products, but we in public health have very little money to fight them," she said. The ICA recently began an anti-smoking ad campaign on the Internet to reach youths.
She called for requiring tobacco companies to put realistic photos - such as lungs dirtied by tobacco tar - on cigarette packets, which have been shown to deter would-be smokers and even some smokers. The World Health Organization on Friday called on all member nations to require the display of such photos on all tobacco products.
She admitted that enforcement of no-smoking laws in public places remains very inadequate, because most municipalities are negligent in handing out fines even though they could keep the money for city use.
Litzman added that there is no longer smoking in his ministry's headquarters, evident by the lack of smoking guards at the door or cigarette butts in the stairwells, which used to be common.
"If a staffer has to smoke here, he should look for work elsewhere," said the United Torah Judaism MK and devout Gur hassid.
Litzman said he would be happy if the tax on tobacco were hiked so that the Treasury would not levy value added tax on fresh produce, as the Finance Ministry is strongly advocating.