Smoking them out

For nonsmokers, growing enforcement of Israel's anti-smoking measures is a breath of fresh air.

smoking 88 224 (photo credit: Illustrative photo)
smoking 88 224
(photo credit: Illustrative photo)
'Look down there," says Jerusalem Municipality inspector Sigalit Lachmi, the team leader. Inspectors Rafi Malka and Aliran Morad lean over the railing and look down. One floor below, sitting on benches in the Hadar Mall in Talpiot, two guys are smoking cigarettes. "Go get 'em, I'll keep an an eye on them from here," Lachmi tells Malka and Morad, who hustle down the stairs. The two smokers, both 17, one bearded, one not, look genuinely shocked. "We didn't know it was against the law. We're not from here," says the bearded one, speaking English with a few words of Hebrew mixed in. In English, Malka asks for their ID, and they hand over California driver's licenses. No point in ticketing them, he says; they'll just ignore the fine (NIS 310) and go back to California. "Don't you see the signs?" he demands. "We don't read Hebrew," says the clean-shaven boy. The signs, which are all over the place, feature the international "no smoking" logo. "Do they let you smoke in shopping malls in California?" Malka continues. "No. But we thought we could in Israel. All our friends told us we could," says the bearded boy. "We'll never do this again," promises his friend, and the two of them, grinding their cigarette butts one more time to make sure they're out, leave the bench in a hurry. Back on patrol in the mall, Malka and Morad tell Lachmi that they should tell the management to put up the "no smoking" signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The trio are among Jerusalem's 70 municipal inspectors who, as part of their job to enforce the laws pertaining to public order and cleanliness, hand out tickets to people smoking where it isn't allowed, such as in malls and hospitals. By rights, they can go into every restaurant and pub they see and make sure there are no ashtrays on the table, which is also against the law, and that nobody is smoking. "But we don't have the manpower for that," says Malka, "so we just patrol the malls and the hospitals, unless somebody makes a complaint about a specific place, and then we go in." Shortage of inspectors to enforce the anti-smoking law is a problem all over the country. The Tel Aviv Municipality asked the Israel Police to do the job in the city, but, says a municipality spokeswoman, "The police told us they didn't have the manpower to do it." Thus, restaurants in Israel commonly set aside part of their seating area for smokers, even though by law the only legal smoking that can be done in a restaurant is in a separate, ventilated room. And on Wednesday, the law is going to get much tougher. Fines for smoking in forbidden places will go up to NIS 1,000. Restaurants, banquet halls and other indoor venues that facilitate smoking, such as by putting out ashtrays or failing to post "no smoking" signs, will be liable to fines up to NIS 5,000. Each ashtray on the tables may bring a fine of NIS 1,290. Under the existing law, the Jerusalem Municipality says some 1,000 tickets have been handed out to smokers in the last six months. According to Lachmi, Malka and Morad, however, they can hardly find any violators anymore. "The last time I gave out a ticket was two weeks ago," says Lachmi; for Malka and Morad, it was the previous week. "You could go out with us on 30 shifts and not see a single ticket being given," Malka tells me. When we get to the Hadar Mall, a cashier is having her cigarette break outside the entrance. Inside, there are no butts on the floor and no smell of smoke in the air. "At the beginning of the year we used to find a lot of smokers, then in about April we felt it going down, and now the illegal smoking that's going on is nil," says Malka. "There's more awareness now. People are afraid of getting fined." The team works the Talpiot area, which includes the Jerusalem, Ahim Yisrael, Rav Chen, Lev Talpiot, Beit Yatzranim and Hadar malls. "Inspectors will be walking around these malls all day, or half a day, or an hour, depending on the work schedule," says Lachmi. Three weeks a month they work regular shifts, but this week they're on the beat from eight in the morning until nine at night. Dov Stalman, Hadar's security officer, joins the patrol, pointing out the tables at a cafe where not only aren't there any ashtrays, there aren't even those little saucers for people to put their used sugar packets in. "They can use those saucers as ashtrays, so we don't allow them on the tables. Let people put the sugar packets in their pockets if they don't want to see them on the table," Stalman says. Hadar isn't unusual in its insistence on staying smoke-free, notes Lachmi. "All the malls are like this," she says. She get on her two-way radio to an inspector at Ahim Yisrael Mall. "What's the smoking situation there?" she asks. Relaying the report from Ahim Yisrael, she says, "Nothing." The only place in Hadar where smoking is legal is a little corner next to the bathroom in an inner hallway, about 20 meters from the shopping aisle. In the corner are a couple of benches, a stand with a plant and four ashtrays. A few butts and an empty pack of Marlboros and one of L&Ms have been left there. ANYBODY WHO'S ever seen the old Egged buses with the ashtrays in the armrests, or who's lived in Israel long enough to remember the smoke-filled air in the cinema, may find it hard to believe that this country's anti-smoking laws have become comparable to those in bean-sprouted California. (Even if enforcement is a lot less strict because many municipalities and the Israel Police don't take the law as seriously as they do in, say, Marin County.) "Most of the people we catch smoking don't come from Jerusalem, they come from the periphery, and they say they didn't even know there was such a law," says Malka. As the two chastened young smokers from California implied, there's something about smoking tickets that clashes with the image of Israelis - it's too politically correct, too petty an offense for a country whose first concern about customers in the malls is that they're not carrying bombs in their bags. The inspectors say they often get this kind of reaction from the smokers they stop: "Don't you inspectors have anything better to do?" "With all the murderers and rapists running around, law enforcement people have to bust smokers?" "What I tell them is that smoking in an indoor public place is the same as running a red light - you're endangering people's lives, only you're doing it a little more slowly," says Malka, 45, who smoked for 28 years before quitting a little over two years ago. Lachmi says the kind of smoke-free environment seen at Hadar was simply a matter of Israelis getting used to a new set of rules. "In the past no one could imagine going into a bar and not being able to smoke anywhere he wanted. The bar owners said they'd have to close up, no one would come anymore, it wouldn't be fun, they'd be too nervous for a smoke to enjoy themselves. But now you see - people are more nervous about getting fined than they are about needing a cigarette, so they don't smoke," she says. (It should be noted, though, that bars remain effectively unsupervised because, once again, the police and municipalities claim they don't have the manpower to do the job.) In their light blue shirts and black pants, municipal inspectors look for all the world like cops, which they aren't. They can hand out fines, but they can't arrest anybody. For Lachmi, Morad and Malka, this has proven a limitation in cases where smokers tried to avoid getting fined. "About a year ago in this mall, I saw a guy of about 20 smoking on the escalator, and I went up to him and said, 'Why are you smoking?' and asked for his ID," Lachmi recalls. "He was there with his father, and his father starts yelling at me, 'Who are you? Get out of my face.' He pushed me and his son ran away. I called the police, but by the time they came, the father had run away too." Malka and Morad were working in the Ahim Yisrael Mall about a year ago when they saw a teenage girl sitting at a cafe smoking a cigarette. "We asked her why she was smoking, and she cursed us, said, 'Get out of my sight,' she wouldn't show us her ID," Morad remembers. "We called the police and two of them showed up and she pushed them, so they called two more policemen. By this time a crowd had gathered. They handcuffed her and took her to the police station, gave her the fine and let her go. The police told us she didn't have a file of criminal violations, she had a library." TOWARD 7 P.M., Lachmi hears that inspectors at the Central Bus Station have caught somebody smoking. Finally. She and Morad head downtown on a call about a business that's dumping garbage illegally, while Malka and I drive to the Jerusalem Mall - "the biggest in the Middle East," he notes. Meeting us there is another inspector, Rahel Tammam, the only smoker on the team. Going inside, they see a young man heading for the exit with an unlit cigarette between his lips. "You see?" says Malka. "He knows not to smoke inside the mall, but he's already got the cigarette out because he can't wait to get outside and light up." I ask Tammam if she feels uneasy about ticketing people for smoking when she has the same habit. "I identify with them," she replies, "I usually tell the smokers I fine that I smoke, too, but I don't smoke where it's illegal, and I respect the rights of nonsmokers. Here in this mall, there are exits on every floor - why can't they just take a short walk to the exit, go outside and smoke there?" She and Malka have been going since the morning, and they have only another hour or so before their long shift ends. They stroll in the direction of a candy stand in the middle of the aisle. "Oh-oh," Malka says. "Here we go." Standing next to the candy display is a woman in her 30s having a smoke. Malka approaches her. "Why are you smoking here? Don't you see the signs? Please put out the cigarette," he tells her, as Tammam and I also converge on the woman. She is a little flustered as she grinds out the cigarette on the floor, but she's got this wide smile on her face like she can't believe what's happening to her. "I was in America for five years, I just got back here a week ago. There was never any law against smoking when I left Israel. I didn't know," she says. She hands Malka her ID - an Israeli employee's card from several years ago. "I'm really sorry, I didn't know. I had no idea. I was in America for five years and I just got back. Ask my mother," she says, still smiling like she's in shock. Malka and Morad turn to her mother standing next to her, and the mother nods. Malka, however, still isn't budging. "Look, smoking here is just like running a red light. You're endangering people's lives. It's against the law. There signs are all over the place. I'm not happy to give you ticket, but..." And now the woman's smile is starting to leave her face as it begins to sink in that she's actually going to be fined for smoking in a shopping mall. "Do they let you smoke in the malls in America?" Malka asks her. "No," she replies, "but they're fanatics over there. In Israel they were always, you know, a little more liberal." Malka is searching her eyes. The woman's helpless smile has returned. "Really, I didn't know. I'm sorry. I won't do it again," she says. Finally Malka relents. "I can't do it. I don't have the heart to give her a ticket," he says, then, turning back to the woman, tells her, "But please, next time, smoke outside." As we walk away, I congratulate Malka for using his judgment, for tempering justice with mercy, instead of just showing the journalist how relentless he is in enforcing the law. "I believed that she really didn't know," he explains. "She seemed sincere, not like she was trying to fool me." The inspector says he's not there to punish, but to educate. "If I see somebody pull out a cigarette and he's about to light up, I'll tell him not to. I won't lie in ambush until he lights up and give him a ticket," Malka says. "I'm not evil."