At a recent reggae show at Hama'abada, clouds of tobacco smoke hung in the air. Although some smokers stepped outside, most lit up inside while enjoying the music and a drink from the bar, even though by doing so they were breaking the law. Smoking in most enclosed, public places is illegal, but the law is rarely enforced and many people are not even aware of it. One young American woman, cigarette in hand, was shocked when told by this writer about the law. "What? You've got to be kidding. Everyone smokes in bars."
Yes, it really is unhealthy
Near the stage, a group of young men were all enjoying their smokes. One laughed as the lead singer of the band cajoled the audience to bring him a "spliff" (joint). "We don't have any!" he called out.
When asked if he would consider not smoking if someone asked, he laughed again and waved his hand around: "Look, everyone is smoking here. If you don't like it you don't have to come."
"It is not in the Israeli character to follow the rules," explains Likud MK Gilad Erdan, who has sponsored a bill in the Knesset to change the enforcement of the nationwide smoking ban. "People think, 'If someone is bothered if I am smoking, they can ask me to stop and I will stop,' but [smokers] don't understand that many people are ashamed to ask. And if there is an old man who sees 10 people smoking, do you expect him to go from table to table to ask them to stop?"
Jerusalemites are particularly notorious for violating the law, and getting away with it.
"If you look at how many tickets the municipality gave [in 2005-2006], it's ridiculous," says Erdan. "When I ran the economic committee I found out that there are only three supervisors in Jerusalem. They need to enforce the law, but not only that; they need to do other jobs as well, like dealing with dead animals on the street, or trees that fall. So of course they are not available; it's a city of 600,000 people."
Responding to In Jerusalem's inquiry into the number of fines issued, municipality spokesman Gideon Schmerling says: "All municipal inspectors are authorized to enforce the anti-smoking law. During 2006 more than 700 fines were given for violating this law. It should be noted that the Ministry of Health praised the Jerusalem Municipality for its actions to enforce that law."
However Erdan, quoting a Health Ministry report, says that from mid-2005 to mid-2006 the municipality gave out 326 fines: 180 in the malls, 28 in restaurants, 12 in workplaces, 24 in hospitals and 82 in other locations.
At the Syndrome downtown, a performance of Greek music is under way. The evening doesn't draw a large crowd but many are smokers. The bouzouki player performs with a cigarette in one hand, and ashtrays are set out on all the tables.
"I don't know how I will survive this evening," complains violinist Daniel Hoffman, who made aliya from California and is used to playing in smoke-free environments.
The manager of Syndrome, who begins his evening by lighting up a Middle Eastern style hooka filled with flavored tobacco, explains that it is actually still legal to smoke in pubs, as long as they don't serve food, despite the fact that the law expressly prohibits smoking in performance venues as well.
"THAT IS a mistake," counters attorney Amos Hausner, president of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking and a prominent activist and advocate. "The rule for restaurants covers bars and pubs as well, even if they don't serve food. Bar and restaurant owners are always against smoking bans, but the bans actually end up increasing business; it happened in New York, it happened all over."
New York City expanded its anti-smoking laws in 2003 to include bars and restaurants, and a 2004 study by the city's Health Department found that those businesses thrived despite (or because of) the ban; the results were increased revenue, job opportunities and even an upswing in applications for liquor licenses.
"Look, the owner of a place thinks things are okay," Hausner continues. "He doesn't think that customers sit longer to smoke and take up space, or that smoking can cause damage to his restaurant... and 75 percent of Israelis don't smoke, so it's simple really."
Anti-smoking laws have been on the books in Israel since 1983. At first limited to banning smoking in buses, taxis, elevators, and pharmacies, the law was amended in 2001 to encompass restaurants, performance venues, trains, workplaces, shopping malls, schools, banks and post offices. The law includes a provision that permits smoking in especially designated areas within certain conditions.
Erdan's bill comes at a time when many countries are adopting strict bans on smoking in public places, as the effects of second-hand smoke on public health become more widely understood. In this Israel is actually ahead of the curve; some European countries, including France, Denmark and most of the UK, are only due to ban smoking in public this year.
"You look at a place like Ireland, where it is now illegal to smoke in pubs, or in Italy," says Hausner. "In the US, in a lot of states it is illegal. Why is it that here we don't [enforce the ban?]"
The lack of enforcement has caused some citizens to take matters into their own hands and Hausner has won several high-profile cases.
"I am not against smoking, I work for the good of everyone," he stresses. "In 2005 a woman named Irit Shemesh sat in a restaurant in Jerusalem, she was pregnant at the time and was with her family, including three kids. She left for the bathroom, and when she returned there were four people there smoking. [They wouldn't stop, so] she went to the management but they wouldn't help her."
She ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court and was in the end awarded NIS 4,000 in damages from the restaurant owners in a precedent setting ruling. "We don't have fines here, we just have explosions like Irit Shemesh. I know of at least 12 other cases like that currently," says Hausner.
According to the law, the NIS 350 fine is applied only to the smoker; the owners of establishments face no financial or legal repercussions for allowing smoking on their premises, although they are obligated to display a no-smoking sign or face an NIS 600 penalty.
Under Erdan's bill, the fine for smoking would increase to NIS 1,000 and business owners would be charged NIS 5,000 for allowing smoking in a non-smoking area. To avoid the fine, owners would have to ask the smoker to cease, and if they do not, inform the municipal supervisor. The bill would also obligate local municipalities to hire more inspectors to enforce the ban.
Prior to 2001, smoking sections had to be a separate part of a room or building, but the current law is more stringent and depends on what kind of building the smoking section is located in. For example the official Health Ministry translation of the law prohibits smoking in "a restaurant, snack bar, coffee shop, or any other eating place, with the exception of an entirely separate room, if any, set aside for smoking by the management... provided that the said room have properly working ventilation facilities, that smoking in it not constitute a nuisance in other parts of the eating place, and that its area shall not exceed a quarter of the space open to the public."
FOR MALLS the law reads the same, with the exception of the size limitation, but a visit to the Malha mall on a Saturday night reveals clumps of smokers shivering outside near the entrances, grabbing a quick puff.
"In malls there are smoking sections, but they are without air or a window," says S.I., 36, who has been smoking for 20 years and admits she would like to quit. "It reeks, and is disgusting and embarrassing. It's a big reason why smokers break the law and smoke elsewhere, or out in the cold."
"I don't want to bother other people, but I want them to respect me also," she explains. "People want to smoke and want to go to pubs and smoke. They need to build the places so there are areas for smokers and non-smokers and they won't bother each other; in most restaurants there are [smoking] sections, but the smoke always carries to the non-smokers, which is not right."
Inside the mall shoppers are brazenly strolling through the crowd while enjoying a smoke, and several women hold their cigarettes under their table at Caf Hillel. Declining to give her name, one explains, "I hate going outside and I don't even know where the smoking room is. I just smoke quickly and finish."
On Rehov Hillel right next to Syndrome is a branch of Caf Aroma that complies perfectly with the law, with a separate, glass-enclosed seating area for smokers, but other branches of the popular coffee chain do not have such a setup; at the smaller branch on King George Avenue a stack of ashtrays can be seen next to the cash register.
The window of the Caf Aroma on Jaffa Road is filled with cigarette smoke as at least three people are smoking inside, despite the tables set up on the sidewalk. One worker briefly confirms that people often smoke there and that they do not have a no-smoking sign.
At the Central Bus Station, the Aroma is filled with cigarette smokers and even one who is smoking a small cigar. When a worker begins to smoke as well, In Jerusalem approaches the cashier, who explains that smoking is allowed and claims the cafe has a special permit from the municipality. The "smoking section" is adjacent to the rest of the coffee shop and not partitioned off according to the law.
The municipality had not responded to IJ's request for confirmation by press time.
The locations that permit illegal smoking and the citizens who are used to smoking where they please might have to make a big adjustment: Erdan's bill passed a preliminary reading in November by a wide margin, and was approved this week by the Knesset Finance Committee. There are still more political hurdles to clear, but he hopes to bring it to the final vote before Pessah.
"I think the proposal is great," says Leah Rosen, who co-directs the Tobacco Committee of Healthy Israel 2020, a Health Ministry initiative to set goals and recommend strategies for public health. "This is one of the things that should be done. I do feel it's the government's responsibility to protect the citizens from second-hand smoke, which is lethal. The basic idea is that without enforcement, nothing is effective."
"My bill doesn't say what is forbidden or not, it only changes the enforcement," Erdan explains. "This is a big problem in Israel; we have laws but they are not enforced. The money from the fines goes to the local municipalities... I think that the minute they realize that they can fine owners, it will be much easier to collect the money from them than from random customers, who could live in Kiryat Shmona."
According to a January 2006 survey by the Israel Cancer Association, 75% of the public supports the prohibition against smoking in public.
"My goal is to pass this bill during this session of the Knesset," he says. "But you need time to hire supervisors and to publicize the changes, so I think it is more realistic that the bill will be implemented in the beginning of 2008. If the whole world can do it, we can too. Today everyone knows much more about the dangers of passive smoking, and we should give people their rights."