Expert: Israel 'way behind the times' in tobacco control

US attorney advises Health Ministry and anti-tobacco activists on how to reduce national smoking.

cigarette butts 88 (photo credit: )
cigarette butts 88
(photo credit: )
Israel is in the 1970s or 1980s compared to the US when measured according to the smoking rate of young people discharged from the military, according to Mitch Zeller, former head of tobacco control at the US Food and Drug Administration. Zeller, an attorney who has been involved in the war against smoking in the US and around the world for decades and is now a consultant in Maryland, came to advise Health Ministry officials and anti-tobacco activists on how to prepare a national program for smoking reduction. He urged his counterparts here to carry out at least four basic strategies to reduce smoking, which has gradually lowered to the current 25 percent of the adult population but has reached 45% of young males who complete their regular military service. He quickly understood from the discussions that, while Israel has strong laws barring smoking in public areas and workplaces, they are often unenforced. The four strategies presented by Zeller were prevention of smoking in children and teenagers, helping smokers to quit, anti-smoking legislation and hiking the price of tobacco products through taxes. Other strategies could make the program even more effective, said Zeller, but these would be significant if carried out. Zeller, who currently has a daughter studying in Israel, was invited to the ministry by Leah Rosen, the ministry's National Coordinator for Healthy Israel 2020, by which Israel aims to formulate specific national goals to reduce the smoking rate. The two dozen participants at his talk came from the ministry, various other government offices, the Defense Ministry, the media and voluntary organizations. Zeller said that Israel should establish a central tobacco control authority or agency to coordinate and push a national effort. The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which Israel has ratified, requires the establishment of such a body, but Israel has not yet done so. Ministry associate director-general Dr. Boaz Lev, who welcomed Zeller, said everyone around the table realized that smoking was the greatest preventable cause of death and disability in Israel and that a multi-pronged effort was needed to fight it. Asked later by The Jerusalem Post whether the ministry would establish an anti-smoking authority like the one suggested by Zeller, Lev said this would be difficult because the Treasury had opposed this in the past. The Treasury was motivated, he said, by many millions of shekels in taxes on tobacco products, and by the fact that the Treasury does not look at the long-term benefits in health and reduced medical costs. Zeller noted that, in Japan, the government is a major holder of stock in the leading tobacco company; thus, while there are laws, they are not well-enforced. The recently appointed "anti-tobacco czar" in Japan previously told Zeller that she did not believe nicotine is addictive, even though this has been proven unequivocally. A full report on Zeller's session will appear in the Health and Science Page on Sunday.