Doctor slams gov't for failing to ban tobacco advertising

Senior Sheba pathologist denounces health minister, predecessors and Likud MKs for opposing ban on tobacco ads in print media and Internet.

Prof. Ben-Ami Sela, a senior pathologist at Sheba Medical Center and Tel Aviv University's Sackler Medical School, has emerged from the world of academia to attack politicians for their failure last week to support a private MK's bill banning tobacco advertising in the print media and Internet. Sela, who also serves as an adviser on lung cancer to the Israel Cancer Association and as the head of Sheba's pathological chemistry institute, said he was unaccustomed to speaking out in public about such issues after writing hundreds of scientific articles for medical and science journals for many years. But the doctor said Sunday that he could not remain silent about the Knesset plenum's vote last Wednesday. "I do not feel comfortable writing these words. I am not a journalist, and articles on what's going on in the Knesset are not my regular fare," Sela said in a statement to the press. "But daily I see victims of smoking in my hospital, and the way against this plague has not been assisted by such public representatives." The vote in the preliminary reading on the bill, presented by Meretz MK Haim Oron and Shas MK and former health minister Nissim Dahan, failed by a margin of 29 to 26 with two abstentions. Ehud Olmert, Haim Ramon and Ephraim Sneh (a physician by profession) - three former health ministers - voted against the bill, while Health Minister Dan Naveh walked out and did not vote, saying he was "in favor" of the legislation but could not vote for it because it was opposed by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. The Health Ministry itself has not initiated a government-sponsored bill to bar tobacco advertising in the print media and on the Internet. A ministry spokeswoman said it was "busy working on other legislation first" to carry out Israel's ratification of the World Health Organization's Tobacco Control Convention, which, among other measures, stipulates tobacco advertising is to be prohibited in the print media and on Web sites. Legislatures in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and most of Europe barred such advertising years ago, but the Knesset has not. Sela noted that smoking is "the most effective public murderer, which steps among us and takes 12,000 Israelis a year to their deaths, 2,000 of them non-smokers exposed to the smoke of others." While doctors did not have realistic hopes that Israeli publishers would voluntarily refuse to accept tobacco ads - even though top US papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have - "we put all out hopes on MKs who would, in a rare demonstration of logic, decency and public morals, adopt and approve the bill that might somewhat reduce the numbers of new smokers each day." The Sheba physician hinted that Olmert, a former health minister and now finance minister well known for his cigar smoking, voted against the bill because the Treasury "earns billions of shekels each year in tobacco taxes." The private member's bill was strongly opposed by Hebrew newspaper publishers who, according to Oron, vigorously lobbied against it in the Knesset out of concern for their loss of tobacco advertising income. All Meretz and Shas MKs who were present voted in favor of the bill, while 17 Likud MKs present - including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his son Omri Sharon - opposed it. Of the Likud, only David Levy, Ayoub Kara and Speaker Reuven Rivlin voted in favor. The government can at any time bring up its own bill to bar tobacco advertising in the print media and on the Internet. If it chooses not to, another private member's bill can be initiated in six months. At present, tobacco advertising is prohibited in the broadcast media, on billboards and in youth magazines.