Frontlines: I regret the first cigarette, but after that...

Despite his lung cancer, and 40 radiation treatments, Gideon Ezra is no anti-smoking advocate.

Ezra 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ezra 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It has happened many times here and around the world. A public figure contracts cancer and then vows to spend his remaining days as a role model.
But don’t expect that from Kadima MK Gideon Ezra, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), who went public with his lung cancer two months ago.
Ezra, 73, smoked at least 40 cigarettes a day, every day, for 55 years, and he would be smoking now if he could. He only stopped because one day in June he realized he didn’t have any room left in his lungs for another cigarette.
“I smoked so much that I couldn’t add any more smoke to my mouth, because it was so full,” he told The Jerusalem Post in a candid interview at his office in the Knesset. “I had trouble walking uphill, so my family doctor sent me to Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, where they found cancer in my right lung.”
Ezra said he started smoking amid the pressure ahead of his psychometric tests at Beit Hakerem High School (now Leyada). He said his first cigarettes gave him goose bumps and he had to hold on to a railing to not fall down, but since then, he insists that cigarettes have helped him think better and have had a positive impact on his life.
He recalled that when he was in the IDF, it gave out free cigarettes and that when he was first elected to the Knesset in 1996, there were still ashtrays in the plenum. While the Knesset has passed laws that prohibit smoking in public places, Ezra said they were no deterrent.
“Because of the limits, I smoked more,” he admitted.
“Now that smokers are limited about where they can smoke, whenever they are somewhere they can smoke, they do.”
Since Ezra’s cancer was discovered, he has endured radiation 40 times.
The radiation prevented him from eating, because his esophagus was close to his lung. After a CT scan last week, he will find out this week whether he is now cancer-free or whether he will have to resume the treatments.
“I am optimistic that the results will be good,” he said. “If not, I will continue going through more treatments.It’s good that I got to this age.”
Ezra said he believes the Health Ministry should sponsor commercials about what cancer patients go through in order to recover. He said smoking prevention could save the country hundreds of thousands of shekels, because the treatments are so expensive.
“People don’t know how bad radiation and chemotherapy are,” he said.“If they could tell people, maybe they would think twice about smoking.”
Ezra said he would try to legislate funding for health funds to subsidize rehabilitation centers for smokers. But if anti-smoking advocates in the Knesset think they have a new ally, they have another think coming.
“The Health Ministry must work on education, rather than the Knesset limiting smoking,” Ezra said. “I think anti-smoking bills are exaggerated. If you come to me with a bill banning smoking in more places, I don’t think I would back it. Smokers need to have a place. Smoking is a part of their lives.”
EZRA’S OFFICE still smells like smoke, as it always did. The culprit this time is one of his aides, who Ezra does not discourage from smoking.
“I still like the smell,” he admits. “It doesn’t bother me. People ask me if they can smoke around me, and I say it’s no problem. I don’t believe that passive smoke can have the same impact as the real thing.”
He discounts the rumors of a supposedly cursed hallway in the Knesset, where multiple MKs and aides who worked there in the past got cancer. He said that he and former MKs Yuli Tamir, Benny Elon and the late Yuri Shtern suffered from different kinds of cancer.
When asked about one of his predecessors as environment minister, Prof. Yehudit Naot, who died of lung cancer while in office, he admitted that it was hard for the ministry to lose someone of her skills and talents.
But he said he never connected her vocal, pro-smoking activism with her disease, and it never made him think twice about his habit.
“Naot smoked a lot, but so did everyone in my generation,” he said. “Twenty years ago, a lot of people stopped. Some stopped because of heart problems, which are almost as bad as cancer.I never stopped until now.”
Ezra is currently enjoying being a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a special subcommittee that deals with classified information. He is working on advancing several bills, including one that would prevent courts from advancing legislation the government cannot afford.
He said he does not intend to leave the Knesset this term, but he has made no plans for the next election. Asked whether his decades of smoking were a mistake, he was decidedly noncommittal. “I won’t say whether it was a mistake or not,” he said. “The first cigarette I regret. I had a choice after the first one. I decided that I liked it, that it helped me think.
“I revealed my disease to the public, because it’s important. I can give people my personal example.But I won’t stand at the forefront against smoking. I am not a hassid of cigarettes today, but I don’t suffer from them.”