One in five Israeli adults smoke cigarettes, testament to the power of tobacco’s allure even in the 21st century with all the world’s governmental and medicinal authorities arrayed against it. While the habit currently still holds a strong attraction in Israel, the dedication to the practice probably doesn’t approach the near-obsession with the product exhibited by smokers in the 1600s when tobacco was an unstoppable new craze sweeping the world.
Pope Urban VII had to issue a decree in 1590 forbidding priests to light up while they were saying mass. The emperor of China in 1638, Chongzhen, was infuriated to find that entire cohorts of his troops had pawned their weapons to buy tobacco. He banned smoking throughout China—on pain of death—and even executed more than a few soldiers, but his army simply kept on puffing.
Finally, the emperor himself capitulated, replacing the weaponry and issuing a tobacco ration to boot. Popes and emperors, English monarchs, French kings, Ottoman sultans and Russian czars have attempted to stamp out the vice within their realms by edict, along with US Surgeons General and Directors-General of the World Health Organizations by appeals to science and good sense, and all have failed miserably.
In asking who started it all history rules out the Duke of Marlboro and focuses instead on a Spanish Jewish converso, Luis de Torres, the official translator of Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery, the first European ever to take a puff. As he babbled Arabic and Hebrew at the confused islanders of the “Indies,” the Taino tribesmen may have offered him a pipeful in order to coax him into utilizing his mouth for an endeavor they did understand. By mid-17th century tobacco smoking had been introduced to every major society, its adherents increasing all over the planet and well into the 20th century.
Smoking in the modern age however has been subjected to quite a series of blows around the world lately, these setbacks not delivered by potentates or overlords but by medicine and activism jointly striving mightily to change society by stamping out the very culture of smoking. In some parts of the world—the chic suburbs of Los Angeles or San Francisco, for example—smoking marijuana carries an almost lesser opprobrium than being seen lighting a cigarette.
Smokers have been banned from just about any place indoors where people congregate, and outdoors too in some jurisdictions where the use of cigarettes isn’t permitted even in open parks and/or on wide beaches. In Calabasas, California, for instance, smoking is prohibited anywhere and everywhere, in all public places, including sidewalks and roadways.
Granted, it’s in Eastern Europe, in countries like Russia, Greece and Serbia where smoking is still the custom for 42% of the adult population, and compared to those figures Israel’s 20% seems reassuring by contrast. Still, though, it’s certainly germane to ask why so many Israelis still smoke in 2020, when it’s so much lower (13%) in the United States for example.
There is universal military service in Israel that some think is a factor. Then there’s also the comparative lack of so much societal attention placed on youth sports, as is the case in the USA, a country with a near national obsession with team sports. From elementary through high school to the professional teams that represent all the large cities, the competitive culture of sporting acts as a brake on smoking for teen athletes in America.
Bad pastimes picked up in barracks, or good ones acquired on school tracks and gridirons, are youthful habits that can last a lifetime. The most complete explanation for a nation as unique as Israel however probably isn’t a simple one and could very likely be quite a bit more complex than simply blaming the Israeli Defense Forces or too few Little League teams in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli Health Ministry in any event set a goal last year to decrease the rate of smoking in Israel to 15.5% by 2024.