'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

litzman 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
litzman 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
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 ofGur, bars smoking in his institutions, said tobacco is terrible.
“Enforcement is the main thing. We have to raise tobacco taxes. Justtwo shekels more adds up to NIS 400 million a year, which is what theaddition to the 2010 basket of health services was,” he said.
He said he would speak to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz about theneed for higher taxes, but he did not state that such new income shouldbe dedicated to anti-smoking activities and education rather than beingused by the Treasury for its own purposes.
Litzman said he personally opposed requiring cigarette packets todisplay graphic images of black lungs and teeth to deter children andothers from smoking, even though this has brought down smoking in manyplaces around the world. “It is not esthetic,” he declared.
He conceded that while he has been busy examining reform proposals fordental treatment psychiatric care, his ministry has devoted less effortto preparing bills of the kind that have lowered smoking rates abroad.In New York, the smoking rate has dropped to 18%, while in Californiaand Australia, it is down to 14%.
Hausner – who has been a one-man anti-smoking effort for decades byproposing legislation and filing lawsuits against numerous propertyowners and employers who violate no-smoking laws – said it was hard toprove what caused the Israeli rate to decline “significantly.”
In 1970, the smoking rate was over 40%, and “we never dreamed it wouldbe halved,” he said. But there is “much that still has to be done, suchas barring all tobacco advertising, cancelling duty-free sales oftobacco products at airports and seaports, prohibiting smoking rooms inpublic facilities and barring automatic cigarette vending machines.”
He also criticized the ministry for not suing violators of no-smokinglaws. “Why does it leave it to me to do?” he said. “The Health Ministrymust ensure enforcement of the laws and promote more legislation. Theministry must also sponsor anti-smoking public service announcements,which it doesn’t do at all. Only occasionally are they funded byvoluntary or private organizations. The law barring the sale of fewerthan 20 cigarettes at a time must be enforced so that children andteenagers are not encouraged to buy them when they have the money,”Hausner added. “Smoking should not be allowed in outdoor playgroundsand bus and train stations and in vehicles with child passengers.”
The statistics, collected by the Israel Center for Disease Control andother public and voluntary bodies, did not include rates ofnargila (hookah) smoking, but only cigarettes. Whilethe smoking rate in general has dropped, the rate among young peopleand Arab men has actually increased; the number of cigarettes smokedhas not declined; and the rate of tobacco addiction in serving IsraelDefense Forces personnel has remained steady.
Smokers today are very likely to be asked by doctors they consultwhether they want to participate in health fund workshops to stopsmoking and to get subsidized medications to help them quit, accordingto the latest statistics, but the workshops and drugs are not yetwidely used.
According to ICDC head Prof. Tammy Shohat, 67% of smokers reported thatthey tried to stop and over 75% of those succeeded for a short time butreturned to the deadly habit.
“Half said they want to kick the habit. About a quarter to a third saythey smoke less since the launching of laws that bars lighting up inpublic places,” Shohat said.
Israel Cancer Association director-general Miri Ziv said that there area few smokers who don’t get sick, apparently because of some geneticprotection, but there are many who smoke only a couple cigarettes a dayand come down with serious illness. A new ICA survey of arepresentative sample of Israeli Jews found that Israelis “are verydisturbed about the health damage caused by smoking.”
Three-quarters of the public know that lighting up just one or twosmokes a day can cause fatal illness. A similar share of those whoresponded to the poll said they are worried about a friend or relativewho smokes and is risking his life, while 18% said the smell of smokedisturbs them, Ziv said.
She added that higher tobacco taxes discourage young people fromsmoking, but “not those who are already addicted.” She reported thatonly 16 municipalities fulfilled their legal responsibility ofreporting how many fines they handed out to illegal smokers, and thatmany are reluctant to hand out fines even though they collect the moneyfor their own municipal uses.
Ziv called on the Health Ministry to take action against tobaccocompanies, which in 2008 spent NIS 50 million on promotion, advertisingand sponsorships of events (32% more than in 2007) even though theseare barred by the World Health Organization’s Framework Agreement onTobacco that Israel signed and ratified years ago.