Israel preparing lawsuit against tobacco companies

MINNEAPOLIS (JTA) — The scion of a prominent Israeli family recently visited Minnesota to learn more about a lawsuit against the tobacco industry that resulted in a recent $6 billion settlement for the state and the Blue Cross health insurance company.

Amos Hausner, an anti-smoking activist in Israel for the past 15 years, announced that both the Israeli government and Kupat Cholim, the nation's largest health insurance fund, are preparing to file lawsuits against tobacco companies.

Similar to the state of Minnesota, Israel is seeking some $2 billion from cigarette makers in compensation for medical costs, plus punitive damages.

Some 6,000 Israelis will die from tobacco-related causes this year, according to the nation's Health Ministry. The Israel Cancer Association has pointed out that the figure is greater than the number of fatalities from auto accidents, terrorism and AIDS combined.

Visiting the Twin Cities earlier this month, Hausner conferred with Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III about the tobacco settlement. He also examined some of the millions of subpoenaed documents in the massive archive of tobacco industry papers.

Hausner's late father, Gideon Hausner, was the attorney general of Israel from 1960 to 1963 and the chief prosecutor in the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

An attorney in private practice, Hausner has led efforts to curb smoking and ban cigarette advertising in Israel. An initial effort removed tobacco ads from the Israel Defense Force magazine.

Today the proscription against tobacco ads includes televised sporting events. During the 1991 Gulf War, Israeli television pulled the plug on a championship basketball game because the foreign arena where the game was being played was festooned with billboards advertising cigarettes.

"There was really tumult in Israel following this," recalled Hausner. "I believe the Israeli legislation is quite progressive in the field of smoking."

The Jerusalem-based attorney noted that 1994 Israeli legislation confined smoking in the workplace to specific areas that must be well-ventilated and separated from areas where non-smokers work.

Hausner said his compatriots are largely in compliance with the law.

"There is this myth that Israelis are heavy smokers, but if you take the real figures, you find out that they're comparable to their U.S. counterparts," he said. Twenty-eight percent of the Israeli adult population smokes, as compared to about 25 percent in the United States.

Israel's Health Ministry has found that smoking is decreasing among adults, but growing in popularity with teens. Israeli youth are lighting up at an earlier age: 11-year-olds are trying cigarettes now, compared to 14-year-olds a decade ago.

Just the same, efforts to curtail smoking have advanced in Israel because the population supports such measures, said Hausner. He cited a 1997 government survey that found 75 percent of respondents, including 53 percent of all smokers, say smoking is "ugly and disgusting."