Hebrew University Research Finds Tobacco Companies Exploit Legal Loopholes to get New Generation of Israeli Teens Addicted to Cigarettes
International tobacco companies are notorious for doing everything they can to get around anti-smoking legislation so they can continue to sell their deadly products without government interference and find younger customers to replace older ones who died of the dirty habit. But it’s hard to catch them in the act.
Now, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine have documented the fact that tobacco firms are exploiting legal loopholes “to create a new generation of people who are addicted to cigarettes.”
Their findings coincide with the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee upcoming meeting tomorrow (Tuesday, September 8) to discuss the latest annual Report on Smoking in Israel.
More than two years ago, a private member’s bill to prohibit tobacco advertising on the Internet and social media – initiated by then-Knesset-members Yehudah Glick (Likud) and Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) was passed by the Knesset; it went into effect in January 2020.
Unfortunately, due to pressure by then-health minister Rabbi Ya’acov Litzman (who is now Housing and Construction Minister in the Netanyahu government) to exempt the print media from the legislation, the law was regarded as unsatisfactory by anti-smoking activists and the authors of the legislation themselves. According to press reports, exempting newspapers from a ban on tobacco advertising was part of the coalition agreement initiated by his party United Torah Judaism, which has its own daily newspaper that runs tobacco ads.
Cabel said then that he “would have been happier if the ban included newspapers, as originally drafted. “Younger people spend a lot of time on the Internet and on Facebook, so it could be beneficial.”
Amos Hausner, head of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking and a leading anti-tobacco lawyer responsible for decades of writing anti-smoking legislation, said that a ban on ads in newspapers was vital, especially since the Hebrew papers that accept cigarette ads don’t write much against smoking.
Hausner added that public heath activists are told by the Health Ministry that they are “too busy” dealing with COVID-19 to handle smoking. “If that is so, let them forgo their responsibility for tobacco control and hand it over to the Environmental Quality Ministry.” The lawyer is trying to get smoking on apartment balconies prohibited, as many people complain to them that life in their homes had become “unbearable” due to smoking by neighbors.
Duty-free stores in the airport, which have closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were able to advertise tobacco on their premises but not elsewhere in the airport, but the World Health Organization’s 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requires signatories to bar the sale of duty-free tobacco. Although Israel is a signatory, the convention has yet to be implemented here.
Hausner urged the Health Ministry to recognize tobacco smoking as a “chronic disease,” which would, under current law, force the health funds and hospitals to recognize smokers as people having a chronic illness, who therefore would have to be advised about how to treat their condition.
Hebrew University epidemiologist Dr. Yael Bar-Zeev, who led the new study, shared that “tobacco companies will use any means possible to recruit new smokers. The recently-released Health Ministry Report on Smoking in Israel proves the incompetence of the government in dealing with tobacco use, as smoking rates have not budged in the last ten years.” Their findings, “Tobacco Legislation Reform and Industry Response in Israel,” were published in the journal Tobacco Control.
Smoking is a risk factor for severe Coronavirus infection and possible death from the virus; even without COVID-19, some 8,000 Israelis die in an average year from tobacco use or being exposed to others’ smoking; in the past six months, 1,000 Israelis have died from complications of the Coronavirus. For the last decade or so, the smoking rate here has remained steady at around 20% of the adult population 21 and over, even though it has significantly decreased in many other countries around the world.
It is also known that smoking is a risk factor for many fatal illnesses, including chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Despite this, tobacco companies are not changing their ways, even with the current corona health crisis.
Bar-Zeev, who is chairman of the Israeli Association for Smoking Cessation and Prevention, together with Prof. Hagai Levine at the Hadassah University Medical Center and chairman of the Israeli Association for Public Health Physicians conducted the new study(in partnership with Smoke-Free Israel, the Israel Medical Association, the Health Ministry and researchers from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The researchers found new and disturbing findings that show that the tobacco companies exploit every possible loophole to continue marketing their harmful products to teens and create new customers for their products.
The legislation established a ban on the display of tobacco and smoking products at points-of-sale and a requirement that all products be sold in standardized packaging without branding elements. The main purpose of these amendments was to diminish children’s and teens’ exposure to tobacco companies’ aggressive marketing tactics and to the products themselves.
But the researchers found that the tobacco companies used existing loopholes in the legislation and the lack of enforcement, which was not set down in the legislation, to continue aggressively marketing and advertising their products. For example, the tobacco companies installed fancy, dedicated cabinets for tobacco products that were eye-catching and prominent, along with large signs that read “We sell tobacco products.” By doing this, children and teenagers continue to be exposed to the presence of tobacco products at points-of-sale.
In addition, several tobacco companies exploited the exception of print media from the advertisement ban to continue branding their products in newspapers. According to Bar-Zeev, these findings reveal that the tobacco companies will stop at nothing to get a new generation addicted to smoking of people, including exploiting every legal loophole, including the lack of enforcement.
To date, said Bar-Zeev, the Health Ministry has not established a unit to combat smoking in accordance with a government decision and currently, there is not a single employee in the government whose main role is to prevent smoking and the damage it causes. Although asked to comment on the new research, the Health Ministry did not do so.
As smoking rates in Israel have remained steady for so long, Bar-Zeev called on Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and the ministry director-general Prof. Hezi Levi to act decisively against the marketing of tobacco products and to fix the failings of the current legislation, including specifying an effective enforcement plan, canceling the exemption of print media from the advertisement ban, and adding graphic health warnings to all tobacco products.
Bar-Zeev told Israel365 News that the legislation didn’t specify what words are allowed to describe cigarettes that are sold in uniform packaging. “They changed the names to ‘Green” or ‘Blue’ to differentiate themselves from their competitors.”
Asked how the pandemic has affecting smoking rates and smokers, Bar-Zeev said that her and others’ surveys identified two different groups. “One consisted of smokers who tried to quit because they feared the higher risk of Coronavirus to smokers. These were the more educated who smoked less and had chronic diseases. The other group, who smoked more than before, were more addicted to tobacco.”
When the legislation passed, continued Bar-Zeev, “we knew of major loopholes, such as the exemption and the lack of enforcement plans. The law is better than nothing, but the Health Ministry has to fix major loopholes by administrative means.”
Due to the pandemic, people who want to eat café or restaurant food prefer to do so outdoors in front, but the law does not ban smoking in these areas, so customers have to choose between being exposed to the virus or to tobacco smoke, said Bar-Zeev. “We will attend a Knesset committee meeting and demand that smoking be completely banned outside coffee s shops and restaurants.”
She added that even though Israel’s four public health maintenance organizations supply much medical consultation online, only two of them have now started in a small way to offer smoking-cessation courses via Internet and smartphone instead of groups actually meeting at health fund clinics. “We will now fight to force tobacco companies to provide information on smoking quit lines and inserts on how to kick the habit that the companies would have to put in all packages at their expense,” she concluded.
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