Yehudah Glick

NEW YORK CITY (JTA) – During the Knesset’s official no smoking day in June, the Likud Party’s Yehudah Glick announced that he was embarking on a hunger strike until the body passed a tax on loose tobacco equal to the tax on cigarettes. He called an end to that 25-day fast on Saturday, July 7, saying it was “in order to avoid harming my health and following many appeals from my family and partners in this struggle.” He added: “The struggle will go on.”

Increase In Popularity
Glick’s dramatic gesture was a sign of a seldom-discussed crisis in Israel: Smoking has made a comeback in the Jewish state, where overall tobacco usage rates outpace those in comparably-developed countries.

When Glick started his fast he called for a moment of silence for the 3,000 Israelis that he said had been killed by diseases caused by tobacco since the beginning of the year.

According to an official Israeli government report, sales of tobacco for water pipes rose 28 percent from 2016 to 2017. In the same time frame, sales of loose tobacco grew by 9.3 percent. The World Health Organization reports that 25.4 percent of Israelis 15 and older smoke tobacco; the global average is 21.9 percent.

“In Israel, taxes on water pipe/rolling tobacco are significantly lower than taxes on cigarettes, therefore it is not surprising that its demand is up,” Dr. Avital Pato Benari, the information and health promotion department manager at the nonprofit Israel Cancer Association (ICA), told JTA.

Ignoring WHO Recommendations
According to the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, Israel is a very high HDI country, comparable to the United States, Canada and Germany, among others. Yet Tobacco Atlas notes that 41.2 percent more men and 19.3 percent more women 15 or older smoke in Israel than on average in similarly developed countries. Israel, which prefers to distinguish itself from its Middle Eastern neighbors, is therefore very much like them in this regard.

Benari blames the government’s insufficient execution of the World Health Organization’s 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, or FCTC, which calls for prominent warning labels, public awareness campaigns, bans on tobacco advertising and high taxes on tobacco products.

“Although the Israeli government signed the FCTC in 2003 and ratified it in 2005, its implementation is lacking,” Benari said. “The price increases through higher taxes on tobacco products, such as rolling tobacco, is not sufficient to generate a behavioral change and reduce demand.”

Military Culpability
Tobacco usage is particularly prevalent in the Israeli military. According to a 2017 study, 36.5 percent of Israelis smoke upon being discharged from the army in comparison to 26.2 percent before being drafted.

“I can tell you for sure that all throughout the army people smoke, and a large percentage of them started during their service,” Itay, a 21-year-old from Haifa who is serving in the Israel Air Force, told JTA. “I think two of the biggest reasons for that [tobacco use] would be social pressure. [It’s] not necessarily [that] people pressure them directly, but the social atmosphere creates that pressure.”

“The second reason would be that you can get breaks for that. In combat units, you get [a] seven-minute break for a cigarette every once in a while during your day. In tough places, that can ease your day a lot.”

When contacted, the Israeli Ministry of Health said it is working with the IDF to mitigate tobacco use while also arguing that tobacco use is simply popular among young adults.

Eyal Basson, a Ministry of Health spokesman, told JTA. “The IDF chief of staff declared his intention to lead the IDF’s smoke-free policy, including a gradual cessation of the sale of tobacco products on IDF bases.” Smoking on all IDF bases will soon be forbidden beyond commander-designated smoking areas, Basson said.

AntiSmoking Measures
Tobacco use is also high in the Arab community in Israel.

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Basson told JTA that the Health Ministry budget includes hundreds of thousands of shekels for anti-smoking measures in the Arab sector.

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Benari said that the ICA is also producing anti-smoking campaigns targeting vulnerable communities and addressing certain motivational factors. “In order to prevent youth from starting to smoke, and to reinforce the norm that smoking isn’t ‘manly’ the ICA created a new campaign in Arabic. The video has more than 50,000 views,” she said.

“Another campaign regarding hookah smoking was created both in Hebrew and Arabic,” she added. “Both videos became viral overnight.”

Recently, the Knesset approved a crackdown on smoking in public places, including concerts, event halls, sports venues, zoos and parking lots. (The Knesset was exempt, however.) Following the crackdown, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman released figures showing that 22.5 percent of all Israelis over 18 were smoking. Litzman also promised to seek to raise taxes on rolling tobacco. The tax on cigarettes is three times higher than on loose tobacco.

The health ministry also supports legislation to further restrict tobacco advertising.

The ICA, however, is notably less enthusiastic about recent government action.

“The recent legislation, including the Knesset’s crackdown on smoking in public spaces, is a step in the right direction,”Benari said. “However, it is important to emphasize that only total bans work well. The NGOs need to vigilantly monitor the tobacco industry’s tactics and strategies to undermine or subvert tobacco control efforts.”