Health Ministry criticized for allowing smoking at airport terminal

Science and Health

The Israel Airports Authority was denounced on Wednesday by public health groups for reinstating “smoking rooms” at Ben-Gurion Airport after they were barred three years ago and the Health Ministry for “doing nothing except for issuing statements” against it. 

The authority claimed on Channel 12 News that because smokers lit up secretly and illegally in restrooms before their flights, they had to set up smoking rooms in Terminal 3. 

A successful class-action suit by Amos Hausner, the chairman of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking, and lawyer Omer Feintoch forced the closing of the smoking areas three years ago, but now the Airports Authority has ignored it. 

“We were astounded by the news and are considering the appropriate legal action,” Hausner told The Jerusalem Post.

The Airports Authority could have continued to bar the smoking rooms and installed sensors and smoke alarms in all the restrooms to catch violators and fine them. Nearly all US airports and many of the world’s busiest airports are completely smoke-free.  

Passengers in the Duty Free at Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv on February 1, 2023. (credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)

Health groups warn against smoking

The Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, the Medical Society for Smoking Prevention and Cessation, and the Israel Medical Association protested, saying that “Smoking rooms kill. Their return is an unfortunate decision that reflects the retreat in the fight against the toxic harm of smoking, which stems from a lack of political commitment to public health.”

They added that the Health Ministry’s and other ministries’ “Failure to protect the public from the tobacco industry and its damage is costing lives. Of the 8,000 Israelis who die in an average year from tobacco, about 800 are non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. It has been proven in studies that there is significant exposure to second-hand smoke in the areas adjacent to smoking rooms, including by staff who work there, in addition to the enormous exposure to the toxins of the smokers themselves.”

The organizations added that “whether foreign interests are involved in the Airports Authority’s decision to return smoking rooms and what was the involvement of the tobacco companies in the decision must be investigated.” 

Prof. Hagai Levine, who chairs the Public Health Physician, and colleagues asserted that Health Ministry director-general. 

Moshe Bar Siman Tov “promised five years ago to correct the serious deficiencies in the law prohibiting smoking in public places. Among other things, he promised to abolish smoking rooms, as is customary in the world, so as to save human lives. The ministry must exert its influence to protect public health and not just send out statements.”

Levine continued that “together with the humiliating publication of the health minister’s Smoking Report – which was censored, not updated, and issued five months’ late, contrary to the law), a new, cancerous gift has been handed to tobacco companies and smokers. A government that works in the service of the tobacco companies is a clear sign of a corrupt government and health hazard.”

The Israel Cancer Association (ICA) issued its own protest against the Airport Authority and called for the cancellation of the decision. 

“It should be shelved immediately. This is a destructive idea that will return Israeli society to the 1950s when people smoked in the back seat of the bus or the ‘smoking area’ on airplanes, where the air is recycled throughout, which has been proven to have given passengers and personnel heart disease and cancer.”

“Don’t we want to raise a generation of children who are free of passive and active smoking? Have we learned anything in the past decades? While all the countries of the world are stepping forward in promoting anti-smoking legislation and airports have closed from smoking corners, Israel is taking a step back… and the tobacco and nicotine companies are making a living from the new addicts.”

Asked to comment, Health Ministry spokeswoman Shira Solomon did not announce any immediate action it would take against the renewed smoking rooms. She merely sent journalists a letter sent by Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of the public health department, to the Airports Authority. 

“We see you as a loyal partner in safeguarding public health and seek to prevent this move. Beyond that, there is a need to increase enforcement in the field to create a smoke-free space for all those passing through it. We see the Airports Authority as a loyal partner in safeguarding public health and seek to prevent this move.”