The number of adult Israeli smokers has increased for the first time in decades, to nearly one-quarter of the population, according to an annual report released by the Health Ministry on Thursday.
Since the 1970s, the number of Israelis who smoke cigarettes has declined annually. However, in 2010 the rate of decline slowed, and in 2016 for the first time the percentage rose, the report said.
In 2016, 22.5% of Israelis age 21 and over were found to smoke, compared to 19.8% a year earlier.
Israel has now slipped to number 28 out of 35 European nations in terms of percentage of smokers.
The report showed that 31.1% of Israeli men and 15.8% of women smoke. It found that among Jews, 2.6% of boys and 1.7% of girls of middle school age smoked, compared to only 1.2% of Arab boys and 0% of Arab girls in that age bracket. By high school, 14.4% of Jewish boys and 7.1% of Jewish girls were found to use cigarettes regularly, compared to only 10.6% of Arab boys and 1.8% of Arab girls.
By the time they enlisted in the army, 24.8% of male teenagers and 14.9% of female teenagers were smoking — a lower number than the previous report from 2012.
The report also showed that while tobacco companies spend more than NIS 60 million ($17 million) annually on ads, the Health Ministry only spends NIS 500,000 ($140,000) on anti-smoking advertising.
Moreover, although the number of people seeking help to quit smoking climbed to 2.2%, the ministry conceded that it must do more to drive the overall figures down.
For the past four years, tax revenue from sales of cigarettes has fallen, but the government still generated more than NIS 6 billion ($1.7 billion) in 2016.
Smoking is one of the leading causes of death in Israel. According to the Health Ministry, approximately 8,000 Israelis die each year for reasons linked to smoking, among them 800 non-smokers who are subject to secondhand inhalation.
Despite the statistics, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) has consistently opposed regulation that would have required cigarette manufacturers to place warning pictures on cigarette packages, saying they are “unaesthetic.”
Litzman has recently come under scrutiny for other policies and statements that seemed to serve the interests of the tobacco companies, including hindering some efforts to curb cigarette ads.
Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.