Michal Ben Shlomo looked around at the empty bar at Café Bialik, then over to the “No Smoking” sign scrawled in blue crayon written, and cracked a sad smile.
“This is supposed to be happy hour and look what happened,” she said. “This is a bar of smokers. Only a couple of times families didn’t come in here because of the smoke.”
The November passage of an anti-smoking law upping fines for patrons who smoke and establishment owners who don’t snuff out cigarettes has roiled Tel Aviv cafés, restaurants, bars and clubs.
While clean-air advocates say it’s a long-awaited victory that will improve public health, the smokers say it’s an infringement on their rights. while business proprietors say it hurts their bottom line.
Israel has had anti-smoking laws on the books since 1983, but they’ve rarely been enforced, especially in places like restaurants and pubs. But with the threat of enforcement of the new law, the idea that Tel Aviv may become like New York or London has many disturbed.
“They’re supposed to start enforcing it this week. Inspectors have supposedly paid visits to my neighbors,” said Ben Shlomo, who claimed that revenues dropped 20 percent immediately after the law’s passage. “The clients who stayed at home might never come back.”
Hadas Sella, a law student at Tel Aviv University and spokesperson for the nonprofit group Clean Air, applauded the stepped-up enforcement, explaining that more than three out of every four Israeli adults don’t smoke.
“If the minority is imposing their habit on the majority, we’re in a bad situation. It’s an issue of changing norms,” said Sella, who recently won about $500 in court from a Tel Aviv hamburger franchise that failed to convince proprietors to stop smoking. “The legislature took a position to take care of public health, and it might be a little tough in the beginning.”
In Israel’s early years, the images of Sabras smoking cigarettes were part of the country’s macho aura. Now, Israelis say the affinity for smoking comes from the relentless pressure of living as an island in the hostile Middle East.
“We have a different kind of stress,” explained Ben Shlomo. “People have been through wars here. It’s not like other places.”
In a cover story chronicling the plight of bar owners and smokers, Time Out Tel Aviv declared, “the new anti-smoking law instigates fights among citizens, confuses authorities and endangers business owners.” The ability of non-smokers to snitch on proprietors and smokers in court recalls “shady regimes.”
Part of the friction in Tel Aviv, said café-goers, might derive from Israelis’ fierce independence and a resistance to authority.
One table of smokers at Café Bialik lamented how they had been banished to sidewalk tables because of the new law.
“In my opinion, it’s an infringement on the rights of the private person,” said Gil Paz, a 53-year-old taxi driver who coughed between cigarettes at Bialik. “They should change the law to designate ‘smoking cafes,’ and if people don’t like it they can go somewhere else. “We have a right to breathe, and likewise we have a right to smoke.”