Lighting Up

Israelis breathe easier because they still smoke.


JERUSALEM — Armed security everywhere. Checkpoints at the entrances to shopping malls. The dangers of hanging out in public places.

So what's good about Israel these days?

Tobacco smoke. And lots of it.

Israel wrote the book on homeland security that America is now reading cover to cover. But Israel has apparently skipped the American treatise on how to turn smokers into social outcasts.

Smoke is everywhere. Even as smoking is against the law.

During a trip last week to Israel, I discovered the following: Secretaries in government buildings smoke — inside the building! Kids on the street smoke — between Talmud classes. Staffers in the office of the Foreign Minister smoke — perhaps explaining why Shimon Peres leaves his windows open.

And yes, tourists smoke too — they can light up a Cuban cigar in the lobby of the Tel Aviv Hilton. (Try doing that in the Washington Hilton.) Maybe because Cuba is not in the Axis of Evil, Isael can be in the Axis of Tobacco.

What makes all of this noteworthy is that each public puff means a law is being broken. Flouted, no less.

As of October 1, smoking is punishable by a $60 fine in nearly every Israeli public place, completing a cycle of prohibition dating back to 1983. With the exception of a few designated smoking rooms, shopping malls, schools, pharmacies, banks, post offices, airports, theaters, lecture halls, hospitals, buses, trains, and clinics are all supposed to be smoke free.

But they're not.

Why? Because people here love to smoke. And because many are unaware of the regulations against their behavior.

At a restaurant near the Sea of Galilee, I ask two security agents if smoking is allowed inside. They both say yes.

Then I point to a sign on a nearby wall picturing a cigarette with the international "no" line slashed through it. "Oh," they respond (same word in Hebrew as in English).

Then they turn the table on me. Is smoking banned in America?, they ask. Of course, I say. They laugh and ask again, What do they do if you smoke, call the police?

I tell them I don't think police actually arrest anyone. Instead smokers suffer shame and humiliation from colleagues, friends, and passersby.

They laugh again. I join in.

Banning cigarette smoking in Israel is a laughing matter. A recent Jerusalem Post article reported that Health Minister Nissim Dahan said municipalities and local authorities are inadequately enforcing regulations barring smoking in public places "because fines aren't popular in an election year."

Ah, elections — coming to Israel just in the nic-o-tine. What an American way to run your life. Just like regulations.

Viceroy cigarette billboards in the region read: "The Big Taste of America." Thankfully, though, the big taste of big American regulation has yet to be sampled.

Israel does not require health warnings on cigarettes. Israel does not hike cigarette taxes to discourage smoking. Children are permitted to buy cigarettes and to smoke. Cigarette companies are not forced to cut nicotine and tar levels in their products. And Israel has yet to sue tobacco importers and manufacturers to pay for smoking-related health problems.

But someday these approaches to social engineering may all come to pass. And likely be ignored.

Which leads to an excellent point raised in a Jerusalem Post editorial last summer: "It is self defeating for a society to pass laws that are blatantly and widely disregarded – especially those whose violation is highly visible."

Yes, yes. So why pass them?

Then again, one can argue that if a commonly ignored anti-smoking law is all Israel is guilty of, so be it.

There are more important things for Israel to police. Terrorism, not tobacco, for instance. As the Jerusalem Post also pointed out, "… [O]ur overburdened police cannot be expected to rush over and hand out 230 [shekel] tickets to smokers in public places."

No, Israel can't lighten up on security. But at least its people still light up. On cigarettes.