JERUSALEM — Light your cigarette in a public place in Israel and you're breaking the law. But don't worry. Everyone else will be too busy smoking to notice.
Americans may be kicking the habit in droves, but Israelis are dragging their feet as health officials try patiently to wean them from what has become a national pastime.
"It is a slow battle," said Dr. Tuvia Lerner, chairman of the Jerusalem-based Society for the Prevention of Smoking, Israel's only anti-smoking group. "Israelis are stubborn people."
According to the latest Health Ministry statistics, one out of every three Israelis smokes. Among young people in their late teens and early 20s, the figure rises to 50%.
In addition, about 10,000 Israelis die each year from lung cancer, heart disease and other smoking-related ailments--more than the combined death toll in Israel's last five wars. The toll is 20 times higher than that from road accidents, which kill about 500 Israelis a year.
Officials say the statistics are improving. But Israelis still seem to smoke everywhere: waiting in line at the bank, in elevators, theaters, buses and taxis. A 1984 law bans smoking in all of these areas, but it is rarely enforced.
The country's addiction to smoking touches all levels of society. The late Prime Minister Golda Meir was a heavy smoker. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin is a well-known chain-smoker. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres smoked two packs a day of his trademark Kent cigarettes for more than 40 years before finally kicking the habit in April.
Whereas anti-smoking legislation abounds in the United States, diehard Israeli smokers have found a trusted ally in the Knesset, or Parliament. Many of the body's 120 members smoke, and a recent Health Ministry proposal to broaden the smoking ban was soundly defeated by a committee of addicted legislators.
"We wanted to ban smoking at workplaces and entertainment sites, but we didn't have a chance at that meeting," said Health Ministry spokesman Shmuel Algrabli. "The committee was stacked with smokers."
Health officials attribute much of Israel's smoking problem to tension. Living in a tiny country threatened by hostile Arab neighbors and frequently rocked by economic crises, the argument goes, Israelis turn to cigarettes as comparatively harmless form of relaxation.
"When you feel your very survival is in danger, it seems ludicrous to worry about the long-term effects of some hazardous chemical," Lerner said.
For many Israelis, the problem starts with mandatory army service at age 18. Only a quarter of those entering the army smoke, Lerner said, but 50% are smokers when they finish.
Psychologist Orenya Yanai said the compulsion to start smoking results from pressures on Israeli youth to "grow up too fast."
"When a youngster turns 18, he is immediately shoved into three years of army service, and this requires a maturity unnatural at that age," she said. "So they join their peers and engage in what they see as adult behavior, like smoking."
Confronted by myriad deep-set social factors, anti-smoking activists are employing their meager resources to try to convince young people that smoking is not "in.".
Several times a week, well-known figures pan smoking in 30-second prime-time television spots. Basketball player Doron Jamche and soccer star Eli Ohana tell youngsters: "Around me, everybody knows I hate smoking."
Lerner said recent studies show a small but steady number of Israelis are coming around.