It has taken a full decade, but anti-smoking activists have succeeded in limiting smoking in the Israeli workplace.
Workers wishing to light a cigarette will have to do so in designated smoking areas, under legislation passed earlier this month by the Knesset Labor and Social Affairs Committee.
An amendment to the groundbreaking 1984 law that bans smoking in certain public places, the regulation will limit smoking to specified rooms and lounges in the country’s 60,000 places of employment.
The new regulation, which has been in the works for three years, will take effect 90 days after the health minister signs it. Just when that will be remains unclear, since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the acting health minister, is less than enthusiastic about the measure.
Lighting a cigarette during an interview about the legislation, Rabin, a chain smoker, asserted: “I am the health minister. I can decide not to sign the change if I don’t want to.”
Supporters of the amendment, which include Knesset members, the Israel Cancer Association, the Society for the Prevention of Smoking and the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel, say they are confident that Rabin will sign it in the near future.
“Momentum is on our side,” said Miri Ziv, director of the Israel Cancer Association.
“The fact that the amendment has come this far is due to a greater understanding among Israelis of the threat smoking poses to people’s health,” she said.
Israelis are smoking significantly less than they did a decade ago, according to the association. In the 1980s, about 42 percent of the population smoked. That figure dropped to 30 or 31 percent in 1993.
In a survey conducted jointly by the Ministry of Health and the cancer association in December, 90 percent of those interviewed supported restrictions on smoking in the workplace. Of the smokers who were surveyed, 86 percent said they favored a separate smoking area because it would rid them of complaints from non-smokers.
Activists credit the 1984 anti-smoking law, which prohibits smoking in such public places as buses and theaters, for getting the ball rolling. An amendment enacted in 1987 added pharmacies and supermarkets to the list.
“Ten years ago, you couldn’t get on a bus or go to a movie without choking from the smoke,” said Natan Barson, a retiree who is active in the AACI’s tobacco control committee.
“Now, if someone is smoking on a bus, other passengers ask him to put it out. Usually, the person complies,” he said. “Those of us who fought for the original law have been happily surprised by the results.”
Though the proportion of smokers has decreased in the past decade, some 5,000 smokers died from cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory ailments last year. In addition, 800 non-smokers died from illnesses resulting from secondhand smoke, the cancer association said.
“The amendment should save a lot of lives, provided it is enforced,” said Ziv.
“Without enforcement, any anti-smoking legislation is useless. The Cancer Association has plenty of prestige but no legal power to enforce the law,” she said.
Whereas smoking is no longer tolerated on public transportation and in theaters, “it remains a real problem in restaurants,” Ziv said.
According to the law, any restaurant with more than 20 tables must reserve a section for non-smokers. Violators are subject to a $60 fine.
“Many restaurant owners ignore the law, and the various municipalities don’t enforce it,” she said. “But there is a simple solution. The municipalities shouldn’t renew the license of any restaurant that breaks the law.”
The AACI’s anti-smoking committee has come up with another solution. Before dining in a restaurant, members call to reserve a table – provided there is a non-smoking section.
“We make it clear to the owner that if his restaurant doesn’t have such a section, we’re going to dine elsewhere,” said Barson.
“Some of the owners have gotten the message and set up non-smoking areas,” he said. “It makes good business sense.”
Yoram Lass, a member of Knesset who is also a physician, has started another round in the war against smoking. He has proposed a private member’s bill that would ban tobacco advertising in the print media.
Since the 1984 law prohibits such advertising on both Israeli television and radio, cigarette companies have relied on newspapers, magazines and billboards to sell their products.
He concedes that the bill, which is in its preliminary stage, has little hope of passing in its current form. “There is a strong tobacco lobby that will block any measure designed to stop cigarette companies from advertising in the print media,” he said. “The newspapers are just as eager for the business.”
Lass said he introduced the bill because advertisements tend to target the younger generation. “They try to make smoking look glamorous and grown-up,” he said. “Nine out of 10 cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking. Preventative medicine is always the best medicine.”