Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Accidental Activist

It’s only been relatively recently that Israel has passed stronger laws prohibiting smoking in public places and begun to enforce them. When I first visited this country in 1983, smoking was widespread just about everywhere. In fact, when I first moved here, some of the older buses still carried yellowing signs restricting smoking to the rear seats, even though smoking on buses was no longer legal by then.

Although these days there are better laws and more awareness of the issue, there are still plenty of places where people break the law. However, thanks to a shift in the law—it now assigns direct responsibility and issues fines for violations—the ordinary citizen can now do something about it.

(Before I go any further, let me say that I will not engage in a discussion of the pros and cons of anti-tobacco laws on my blog or in the comments section. Full disclosure: I have had asthma all my life, was forced to breathe second-hand smoke throughout much of my childhood and suffered terribly as a result. It is a tremendous relief to me that by law, I no longer have to depend on the goodwill of others in this matter, and I insist, without apology, on my right to smoke-free air wherever the law mandates it.)

Several months ago, I went to a local government office on an errand. Just before the entrance to the waiting room was a stairwell with two ashtrays on either side. One employee who stood there smoking informed me that this was the employees’ smoking area. As I walked through the cloud of smoke into the waiting room, I informed him that it was illegal.

Things were even worse inside. A senior clerk whose office door opened directly onto the public waiting area smoked in his office and allowed other clerks to smoke there as well. I found this out when the waiting area started to fill up with smoke. I followed my nose to the source and asked the clerks—more like told them—to put it out. Now, if you please. They glowered, but complied.

At that point, I saw a familiar expression on the faces of some of the other clerks. I know that look well, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, or heard people put into words the sentiments that it expresses. “It bothers me, too,” they say with sad resignation, “but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The expression on their faces was the last straw. Maybe they couldn’t do anything about it—at least not without risking trouble on the job—but I could.

So I did.

The next time I went to that particular office, I followed the advice of the Israeli anti-tobacco organization, Avir Naki. (The site, whose name means “clean air,” is in Hebrew. I regret that they have no English-language section as yet, at least not that I could find.) I took a film camera with me (not a digital one; apparently, only film photos that are stamped with the date and time are acceptable for this purpose) and, when no one was looking, I took pictures of the ashtrays in the stairwell. I also got the name of the senior clerk who had turned his office into a smoking lounge—no problem there; it was on a plaque right next to the door. I filled out the complaint form on the Avir Naki website, got the film developed and headed to the Supervisory Division of the Jerusalem Municipality.

I had dates, times, locations and photographs, all nice and legal. I put them in an envelope, handed them to the uniformed police officer behind the desk and got a receipt.

Several weeks later, I received a letter from the municipality saying that they’d contacted the office in order to discuss the issue with the people in charge there, and that the problem was now solved. All right, I thought. I guess I’ll see for myself the next time I’m there.

The next time turned out to be this morning. When I got out of the elevator, I was met—wonderful to relate!—by clean air and the complete absence of ashtrays.

The clerk who dealt with me went out of his way to be particularly nice. After I left his cubicle and went on to the next thing I had to do, another clerk, the one whom I’d seen smoking in the senior clerk’s office, passed by. Recognizing me immediately, he asked me in a ringing, cheerful voice: “Does the smoke still bother you?”

I smiled at him, ignored the question and stuck to the business at hand. He, too, was very helpful.

Did they know that I was the one who had submitted the complaint? Maybe, maybe not. I hadn’t given a hint of my intentions, and the police say that they’re not allowed to give out the names of people who make complaints.

At any rate, it was good to see that in this case, a bit of citizen activism worked.

Oh, and I did the same thing at the building where one of my workplaces is located. I won’t say that it has worked perfectly, but the situation there is much better than it used to be. The ugly, smelly, hip-high sand-filled ashtrays that used to litter the halls, which the building management insisted were trash receptacles, have been replaced by real wastebaskets. Clean ones. With covers. And people now go outside to smoke.

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