Precedent-setting Class Action Request Filed Over Smoking on Stage During Haifa Performance

A precedent-setting request for a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Haifa Theater on Thursday because an actress smoked on stage during a performance, thereby violating the law prohibiting smoking in public places.

About a month and a half ago, attorney Einav Avrahami went to see David Mamet's play "The Old Neighborhood" with some friends. During the course of the performance, actress Orly Zilberschatz lit a cigarette and smoked for about half an hour.

After the performance, Avrahami says she complained to the theater and the municipality, and was told that this was part of the work of art.

"The answer essentially was that actors are above the law, under the guise of artistic freedom," says Avrahami, adding: "This is a fundamental matter of principle, especially since it concerns a theater."

Avrahami's suit was filed at the Haifa District Court by attorney Amos Hausner, chairman of the National Council for the Prevention of Smoking. The suit accuses the Haifa Theater and the Haifa municipality of "violating the law against smoking in public places."

Hausner says, "The legislation makes no exemptions for smoking on stage, and if part of the work of art involves an actor commiting suicide, will he actually commit suicide?"

By smoking during the play, Zilberschatz damaged the health of the spectators in the small theater hall, which seats 158 people, the suit states.

"The plaintiff seeks to declare that both the viewers and the actors are exposed to smoking not just once, but during the course of dozens of performances as well as rehearsals," says Hausner. "The international consensus is that smoking causes illness, disability and death, and the Haifa Theater is bringing all this on its audience members."

He also argued that the Haifa municipality faces a conflict of interest in the matter, since it is supposed to enforce the law at the site, but is also the owner of the theater building.

This is the second incident involving audience members and smoking actors. In January, a performance of "August: Osage County" at Tel Aviv's Habima Theater was stopped after an audience member shouted at leading actress Gila Almagor: "Stop smoking, the smoke is choking me."

Following this incident, the Habima management began informing playgoers that the performance involves smoking on stage.

Avrahami and Hausner's suit demands NIS 1,000 in damages for every audience member who saw the play this season, and estimates this includes 4,000 people.

Avrahami says she is forgoing any compensation she might receive through the suit.

"It was very infuriating and brutal that a theater, which is a public and cultural institution, was violating the law," she says. "I love theater and the play is a good, strong drama. But that has no relevance. With all due respect, smoking in a public place is a violation of the law."

Haifa Theater director general Dror Garber told Haaretz in response: "The suit has not yet come into our hands, and when it does we will deal with it by means of the theater's legal bodies."

The Haifa municipality says: "The complaint has been examined by the theater's and the municipality's legal advisor. We do not believe the subject of the complaint is included in the anti-smoking law. This was not the lawmakers' intention, and the language of the law does not include the intention to infringe on the freedom of artistic creation."

Zohar Yakobson, Zilberschatz's agent, declined to respond.