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Behind the Headlines: Moving Toward a Smoke-free Israel? Slowly, Slowly, New Law Makes Inroads

December 14, 1994
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Spend an hour at the local office of Bituach Leumi, Israel’s social security office, and you will leave smelling like cigarettes.

Visitors, many of them on disability or maternity leave, puff on cigarettes in offices and lobbies. The cloud of smoke is especially thick near the front entrance, where the security guard joins others for a drag.

The scene is not much different at Building No.1 of the Jerusalem Municipality, which houses, among other things, the mayor’s office.

Go upstairs to the building-permit department, and you will fin several of the visitors smoking as they talk to city clerks.

When a non-smoker ways pointedly, “This is a non-smoking area, isn’t it?” the smokers shrug their shoulders, make a few snide remarks and continue their conversations.

Asked why the smoking ban is not being enforced, one of the clerks replies, “The law is new, and it will take people time to get used to it. In the meantime, you’ll just have to bear with us.”

The fact that people throughout Israel are smiling in public workplaces in not surprising. But it is illegal.

On Oct. 19, the Israeli government enacted far-reaching legislation that bans smoking in virtually all of Israel’s 60,000 workplaces.

The law’s only concession to smokers is a provision enabling employees to designate a “smoking corner,” provided that the smoke does not pollute the rest of the office, shop or factory.

But the legislation, which came in the form of an amendment to the groundbreaking 1984 law that prohibited smoking in such public places as buses, movie theaters, banks, hospitals, schools, and restaurants with 20 or more seats, almost never got enacted.

After the legislation was approved by the Knesset in 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – then acting health minister and an unabashed chain smoker – refused to sign it into law.

It was only after a permanent health minister was named that the amendment because official law.

But, as anti-smoking activists are quick to point out, passing the legislation was only half the battle; enforcing it has been the real challenge.

Israelis are definitely smoking less than they used to, with today’s official figure of 31 percent significantly lower than the 42 percent who smoked during the 1980s.

But just where and when Israelis smoke defies all logic.

Whereas buses and movie theaters are virtually smoke-free, few people think twice about lighting up in a restaurant, hospital, bank or university.

Dr. Alma Avni, director of the Health Ministry’s Occupational Health Service, says she is hopeful that the new legislation, and the publicity storm that preceded it, will finally get people thinking.

Already, she says, “we have received hundreds of complaints about non- compliance. Right now, we don’t have 100 percent or even 90 percent of the smoking population complying with the law, but it is a start.”

Avni admits that enforcement is the biggest challenge.

“It is hard to get hospital visitors and patients not to smoke when they see physicians smoking and that is true of many places,” she says.

“We are working closely with the police, but it is a question of priorities. If a police officer has to choose between investigating a suspicious object (suspected of being a bomb) or stopping someone from smoking in a restaurant, it is obvious what action he will talk first,” Avni says.

Though pleased with the legislation as a whole, Miri Ziv, director of the Israel cancer Society Association, agrees that it is not easily enforced.

“If someone is caught smoking, he can be fined 170 shekels (about $56), but the fact is that fines aren’t being given out. Our police have other problems to worry about,” she says.

Both Ziv and Avni contend that it is only a matter of time – and education – before Israelis comply with the law.

“Before drafting the amendment,” Ziv recalls, “we contracted a firm to do a survey of the general population.

“Ninety percent of the questioned supported a bill limiting smoking in the workplace. But what really surprised us was the fact that 87 percent of the smokers said they supported it.

“Many of them said they would like to give up smoking, but didn’t have the willpower while others smoked around them,” Ziv says. “Others said that they were tired of being asked to stop smoking, and that by designating a smoking area, they could smoke guilt-free.”

Avni is optimistic that she will positive results soon.

“It is a proven fact that secondhand smoke causes cancer, and employees cannot just leave the room, like they can a restaurant, if other are smoking. If non- smokers stand up for their rights, things will improve,” she says.

“In Israel, 70 percent of the public doesn’t smoke, and I think peer pressure will ultimately win out,” Avni adds. “We’ve already received many reports from companies saying that fewer people are smoking. I ink that’s something to be proud of.”

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