Cigarette ashtray
An electronic cigarette held next to an ashtray. Photo by Nir Kafri
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The 2009 tax hike on cigarettes did little to change the overall smoking rate in Israel, which has remained stable for the past three years, but did push smokers to use cheaper cigarettes, according to a report released yesterday by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.

Some 23 percent of adult Israelis smoked in 2009 and 2010. Israelis consumed 415 packs of cigarettes in 2009, a 0.5 percent increase since the previous year.

"Over the last three years smoking rates in Israel have been stuck, contrary to the downward trend in most of the world, including countries with high smoking rates like Greece and Turkey," said Health Ministry director general Dr. Ronni Gamzu, adding that the one exception was a rise in smoking among Arab Israeli men.

Twenty-eight percent of Jewish men and 52 percent of Arab men smoke, according to the report. But among women, more Jews smoke (16 percent ) than Arabs (10 percent ). Adult Arab female smokers take up the habit at an average of 27 years old, while most other adult smokers start at around 18.

Despite the evidence indicating that the cigarette tax did not affect the overall smoking rate, Gamzu advocated taxation as one method of curbing smoking.

"We must take steps in education, taxation and advancing legislation to reduce the damages of smoking," he said.

"Israel was one of the first countries to ban smoking in public places, but the fight against smoking got stuck in recent years," said Miri Ziv, director general of the Israel Cancer Association. "We must keep at it, because it is actually life-saving. Cigarettes contain dozens of carcinogens and they can take away a person's life."

At 32 percent, smoking rates among Israeli men are similar to the Netherlands and lower than Greece (46 percent ), Turkey (44 percent ) and Japan (39 percent ). But it is sill higher than most Western countries, including the United Kingdom (22 percent ), Canada (20 percent ), the United States (18 percent ) and Iceland (16 percent ).

The smoking rate among Israeli women - 15 percent - is similar to that in Canada and the United States. It is lower than in most Western countries, including the United Kingdom (21 percent ) the Netherlands (24 percent ), Ireland (27 percent ) and Greece (33.5 percent ).

The report indicates many Israelis pick up smoking during their army service.

Last year 35 percent of the Israeli men who joined the army and 24 percent of the female recruits smoked when they began their military service, and that went up to 39 percent for men and 33 percent for women when they were discharged.

On average, male recruits said they started smoking at 15, while women started at 16. Fourteen percent of the ultra-Orthodox smoke, the report said, starting on average shortly before the age of 18.

Smoking-related diseases claim the lives of 10,000 Israelis every year, some 8,900 of them from active smoking and about 1,000 from passive smoking. More than 60 percent of smokers said a doctor has told them they should stop smoking.

The number of smoking-related deaths far outnumber those caused by traffic accidents (around 350 a year ) and suicides (500 a year ).

Smoking costs the state some NIS 1.75 billion a year.