Health Ministry: No plans for new anti-smoking bills

Anti-tobacco groups suggest barring smoking rooms in all buildings, abolishing tobacco advertising.

public smoking 224 88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
public smoking 224 88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Presenting his annual report on smoking Tuesday, Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri conceded upon questioning by reporters that his office has no concrete plans to propose legislation aimed at reducing the number of Israelis who light up. Proposals raised by anti-tobacco organizations include barring optional smoking rooms in all buildings so smokers would have to go outdoors, prohibiting smoking in all vehicles with child passengers, banning cigarette vending machines, prohibiting the sale of tobacco in duty-free shops, abolishing all tobacco advertising and including smoking cessation courses in the basket of free health services. Ben-Yizri, who has smoked for more than six decades of his 80 years, said at a press conference in his Jerusalem office on the eve of Israel's No Smoking Day that more enforcement of laws (resulting from a private members' bill recently passed in the Knesset) is needed, because "there are owners of premises who don't want to fight with customers who smoke there in violation of the laws." However, he did not provide statistics on how many fines - of hundreds to thousands of shekels each - have been given to smokers and owners of premises around the country since the law went into effect last year. Ben-Yizri said ministry legislation in the past has been aimed mostly at protecting non-smokers from being exposed to passive smoking. "It doesn't mean that the number of smokers is declining significantly," he said, adding that "there has been almost no change in the number of cigarettes smoked in the country." However, Ben-Yizri said, there is more information, supervision and awareness of the dangers to health. Today, 23.2 percent of Israelis over 18 smoke, a small decline from around 25% a few years ago. A survey encompassing 3,137 adults in 2006-2007 found that 26.7% of Jewish men, 39.8% of Arab men, 19.7% of Jewish women and 6.8% of Arab women smoke. An additional 18.9% of Israelis who smoked in the past have kicked the habit, the survey found. This compares to a 45% smoking rate among Israeli men in 1980. The target of the ministry is to reach an adult smoking rate of 15.1% in 2020 (some US states, such as California, have already reached this relatively low rate.) But it was not clear how the ministry intends to reach this target 12 years from now, as today 60% of Israeli men and 53% of women smokers say they do not intend to quit, although a large number of school pupils who smoke said they want to stop. The health minister volunteered with a smile, eliciting laughter from those present, that he would observe World No-Smoking Day - which falls this Saturday, rather than on Wednesday, when Israel marks the day - as he does not smoke anyway on Shabbat because he is traditional. Although the ministry has initiated a variety of smoking prevention programs and informational material, especially for children and haredim, it has not invested money in public service announcements on TV, and deputy director-general for information Yair Amikam said he is depending mostly on health reporters to tell the public that Wednesday is No Smoking Day. Ben-Yizri said that the average age when youngsters smoke their first cigarette or puff on a hookah for the first time is 15, "although there are cases when they start as early as age 10." Smoking is no longer allowed in rooms, clubs and other indoor areas in the military, said the minister. However, there is a worrisome trend of soldiers starting to smoke during service. A total of 31% of male draftees and 23% of female draftees smoke when they enlist, but upon discharge, 40% of men and 30% of women are hooked on tobacco. "The Israel Defense Forces knows about this and tries [to fight it]. Perhaps when they return to normal life and have less tension, this figure will drop," said Ben-Yizri. Surveys show that IDF inductees who use tobacco used to start smoking at an an average age of 16.5, and now it has dropped to 15.5 years. Prof. Tami Shohat, acting director of Israel's Center for Disease Control, said that despite rigorous laws, the Israeli smoking rate is still higher than in the US, Canada, Britain, Finland, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden, among others. But it is lower than in places like Italy, Holland, Portugal and Belgium. Miri Ziv, director-general of the Israel Cancer Association, noted that smoking has been found to be a cause of the blood cancer lymphoma, giving smokers twice the risk. The ICA is now demanding that tobacco advertising be banned completely, not only on TV, radio, cinemas and in youth magazines but also in newspapers, other magazines and in cyberspace. "Although selling tobacco to minors is prohibited, clever marketing techniques by tobacco companies aim at them as well," Ziv said. She announced that the UICC, the international umbrella organization of national cancer associations, is offering a prize of $5,000 for the best logo designed by anyone worldwide to symbolize that a location is smoking-free and safe for children. A new survey by Clalit Health Services has found surprising ignorance about tobacco among the public. Half surveyed did not know that smoking reduces the fertility of men and women, and 22% said tobacco use has no effect at all on fertility. Fully 90% knew that smoke can harm a fetus in the womb, but only 53% knew it is an important cause of sudden infant death syndrome and 66% knew it could cause miscarriage. Clalit offers members who have its supplementary health insurance policy to get a full rebate for smoking-cessation courses if they stay tobacco free for half a year. Beyond the official statistics, this reporter conducted a survey of the security guards at the entrance to ministry headquarters. "All of us smoke," said a former Russian immigrant among the guards, all of them recently discharged from fighting units, "We know that smoking is dangerous," said one former immigrant from Russia. "But we don't know where to go or what to do to quit."