The number of Israeli smokers shot up last year to a level last seen in 2008, prompting Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to promise to seek to raise taxes on rolling tobacco, whose popularity has grown sharply in recent years due to its low cost compared to that of cigarettes.
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Figures released by the ministry on Thursday showed that 22.5 percent of all Israelis over age 18 were smoking last year, up from 19.7 percent the year before. In absolute terms, it means that the number of smokers climbed by 120,000 to about 1.2 million people, the third straight year of increases.
“The increase in smoking rates, which brings Israel back above the 20 percent mark, demands that the healthcare system reexamine its policies for coping with tobacco products and whether to allocate more resources to contend with the problem,” Litzman said, promising a package of measures soon.
The ministry estimated that smoking costs about 8,000 Israeli lives annually – a 10th of them from people dying from ambient smoke – and the economy 12.9 billion shekels ($3.6 billion), or 1.5 percent of gross domestic product.
Israel’s war on tobacco has been lagging, despite new rules imposed in February 2016 banning smoking in educational institutions.
A European Union rating for anti-smoking policies released in February, which scores countries for policies on tobacco taxation, smoking bans in public places and health warnings, gave Israel a score of 43.5 out of 100. That put it in the bottom third of 28 countries surveyed.
A sore point among anti-smoking activists is Israel’s policy on tobacco taxes, which imposes a much lower rate for loose tobacco than it does on cigarettes. The result has been a big increase in Israelis smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Imports of loose tobacco rose to 695 tons last year from 572 in 2015 and just 60 in 2012.
Litzman said in the report he would be approaching Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon about raising the tax on rolling tobacco. The issue has been raised before but so far Kahlon’s Finance Ministry has rejected any tax hike as part of a general policy of avoiding tax increases of any kind.
The overall figure for smoking obscures the wide differential between different segments of the populations. Among Israeli men, the rate was 31.1% last year, higher than the 25.6% average for men EU countries. Among women, the rate was just 15.8%, lower than the EU women’s average of 16.9%.
Among Israeli Arabs, the rate was 23.4% versus 22.3% for Israeli Jews. But the rate for Arab men was 43.9%, 1.6 times the rate for Jewish men. Among Arab women it was just 9.8%, compared with 17.7% for Jewish women.
One of the few areas where smoking showed a decline was among soldiers. In 2016, 24.8% of all male soldiers said they smoked, down from 30.6% in 2012, while among female soldiers the rate dropped to just 14.9% from 23.3%.
However, the two-decade-long study of 30,000 soldiers showed that young people stepped up their smoking by 40% during their army service, especially those serving in combat units.
The number of Israelis enrolled by stop-smoking programs rose 4% in 2016. But the absolute number was just 27,000 or 2.2% of the smoking population.