Health experts trash airport decision to bring smoking areas back

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

The Health Ministry and health organizations are harshly criticizing the Israel Airports Authority for reinstating smoking areas at Ben Gurion Airport. One designated smoking area is already available, and more are expected to open soon, some three years after the airport eliminated all smoking areas in its terminals.

The decision to bring back the smoking areas was reached after airport staff complained that travelers were ignoring the terminal’s smoking ban and lighting up in bathroom stalls, Channel 12 news reports.

Dr. Sharon Elroy-Preis, head of public health at the Health Ministry, says the move goes against the national goal of reducing Israel’s smoking rate, which recently increased to 20 percent after decades of decline. Around 8,000 Israelis die from smoking-related diseases every year, including 800 from secondhand smoke.

This “destructive decision will take Israel back to the 1950s, when smoking was permitted at the back of buses and there were smoking areas in planes,” the Israel Cancer Association says. “We are smarter today and aim to raise a generation of children clean of active and passive smoking. Have we not learned anything in the last decades? While other nations are moving forward and passing legislation prohibiting smoking and airports around the world are closing smoking areas and rooms, Israel is taking a step backward.”

A Ukrainian woman stands inside a smoking booth at Iasi International Airport in Romania before she and her child board a special flight to Israel, March 8, 2022. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

The Israeli Medical Association and the Association of Public Health Physicians both point to the influence of tobacco and nicotine companies and raise the possibility that commercial considerations played into the decision to allow smoking at the airport again.

Of major concern is the effect of smoking in and around the terminals on bystanders. Secondhand cigarette smoke can lead to immediate discomfort such as nausea, eye irritation, and labored breathing for those with asthma. Longer-term exposure can lead to heart disease, strokes, and malignancies, among other illnesses.

Smoking cabins or smoking booths, meant to give smokers a place to light up indoors without bothering others, are not hermetically sealed, and smoke can seep out of them.

In addition, the assumption that stepping outside the terminal for a cigarette is safe has been nullified by studies, including one by Tel Aviv University researchers published earlier this year showing that 85% of tobacco smoke is invisible and wafts back into buildings even when a smoker stands outside. In the open air, a nonsmoker must be a full 10 meters away from a person smoking a cigarette to remain safe, the study found.

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