It is difficult to overestimate the amount of damage caused by smoking.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year, or about one in five deaths.”
“We recommend adopting a strict policy and dramatic measures required by the necessity of reality, but it is clear to all of us that the best way to stop smoking is not to start smoking.”Moshe Bar Siman Tov, Director-General Health Ministry
“Smoking leads to disease and disability and harms nearly every organ of the body,” the CDC explains. “Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking also increases the risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system, including rheumatoid arthritis.”
The United States and other countries have launched broad campaigns to educate their respective publics about the dangers posed by smoking and to reduce smoking rates – which have brought about a remarkable decrease in the proportion of smokers among American adults, from 42.6% in 1965 to 20.9% in 2005 and 11% in 2022.
Israel has been far slower to catch on. According to the Health Ministry, 20.8% of Israeli adults are smokers – about the same proportion as 20 years ago. Smoking is more prevalent among certain segments of Israel’s population, including the Arab and haredi communities, and those groups also tend to be more susceptible to smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer. Smoking among teenagers is on the rise, having increased sharply from 12.4% in 2018 to 23.6% in 2021.
Government efforts to reduce smoking rates in Israel have been lackluster at best. Former health minister Yaakov Litzman was accused of siding with tobacco companies by objecting to a ban on advertisements for cigarettes in newspapers (he said he was only looking out for the newspapers’ financial well-being) and to a proposal to illustrate the effects of smoking on cigarette packages (he said doing so would “disturb” young children and suggested putting pictures of Jerusalem on them instead).
The Health Ministry’s announcement on Monday of a new action plan to combat smoking in Israel, then, comes as a breath of fresh air.
“The phenomenon of smoking is very worrying and, under my leadership, we are determined to promote measures to reduce it and increase awareness of the harm smoking causes,” said Health Minister Moshe Arbel of Shas.
“This demands a complex and joint effort, and we are committed to implementing the policy in a variety of areas (of prevention) and encouraging quitting to promote public health and protect youngsters and adults alike from this serious damage to health.”
According to a report by this paper’s Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, the ministry’s new plan includes a slew of measures, including a ban on the sale of tobacco products to those under the age of 21, rather than the current legal age of 18; requiring graphic warnings on all tobacco and smoking products; a ban on the sale of disposable electronic cigarettes; selling tobacco and smoking products in designated stores only and reducing the number of points of sale; and giving the ministry authority to enforce a ban on advertising on the Internet.
“Given the dimensions of the spread of smoking, we have examined all possible measures and continue to act in many ways in order to raise awareness of the dangers of using these products,” said ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov.
“We recommend adopting a strict policy and dramatic measures required by the necessity of reality, but it is clear to all of us that the best way to stop smoking is not to start smoking.”
Activists unhappy with limited proposals
Public health advocates and anti-smoking activists have welcomed the ministry’s plan, but some have suggested it doesn’t go far enough. They cite the absence of a meaningful effort to address the effects of secondhand smoke and smoking in one’s home – which, per recent studies, can cause harm to people in 10 neighboring homes – as well as poor enforcement of smoking bans at bus stops and elsewhere.
These are important points and they ought to be addressed. Nevertheless, the ministry’s new plan is an important step in the right direction, and it must be supplemented by efforts on the part of community and civil society leaders to combat the scourge of smoking wherever it may be found.