News Roundup

Court acts on Israel's poorly enforced ban on workplace smoking

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 27 July 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:218

Jerusalem Judy Siegel-Itzkovich

Israel's High Court of Justice has set an international precedent in enforcing a World Health Organization convention intended to protect people from exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke.

In what is believed to be the first major national legal application of provisions of the WHO's framework convention on tobacco control, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein allowed an appeal by Irit Shemesh, a pregnant woman who was exposed to secondhand smoke in a Jerusalem restaurant despite Israel's strict law against smoking in workplaces, which is poorly enforced by local authorities.

He argued that, in addition to criminal enforcement, there should be a mechanism of civil enforcement by a “caring citizen” who sues for compensation from those who own or manage a facility used by the public but who make no effort to enforce bans against smoking in those places.

Initially the local small claims court had awarded Mrs Shemesh only nominal compensation by the restaurant's owners, and the Jerusalem district court did not intervene. But the judge granted the right to appeal and raised the compensation 10-fold to 1000 shekels (£120; €180; $225), plus legal fees and expenses, totalling 2500 shekels.

All signatory nations that ratified the framework convention, including Israel, recognised that secondhand smoke causes “death, disability, and illness,” said Justice Rubinstein, and these countries therefore assumed responsibility for the protection of citizens from exposure to it. He also cited books of Jewish law and religious court rulings on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke.

The director general of the Israel Cancer Association, Miri Ziv, said she hoped that owners of restaurants and other workplaces will bar smoking before passage of a bill in the Knesset (parliament) that puts the onus on owners and will result in fines not only for smokers but also proprietors who allow illegal smoking.

Meanwhile Israel's National Institute for Health Policy Research has adopted a recommendation that all tobacco manufacturers and importers be forced to pay a large sum of money in advance to cover the medical costs of consumers of their products.

The chairman of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking, Amos Hausner, said, “As tobacco is the only product on the market that kills when used in the way intended, companies that sell them [tobacco products] should be required to transfer such a deposit to the finance ministry, which would allocate the money for health care.”

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