Pic: Yaki Assaig
Photo: Tzvika Tishler
Photo: Tzvika Tishler
Photo: Gabi Menashe
Smoking kills? Illustration
Photo: Gabi Menashe

Playing by the numbers

Are Israeli kids drug addicts who inhale gas from an air conditioning unit or sniff glue to get high? Hardly. So why do statistics lie?

Roughly 16 percent of Israel’s teens over the age of 13 - shouted the newspapers - have inhaled the gas from the air conditioning unit or sniffed glue to get high, reports the Israeli Authority for the War on Drugs. There’s only one problem with this shocking statistic: It’s wrong. 


The Authority claims there are 525,000 high school students (the ultra-Orthodox community was not part of the survey). No way are they more than 80,000 students hooked up to the air conditioner’s hose. If that were the real situation, the education system would fall apart. Kids would be dying every day and the police would have to set up a special air conditioning unit. 


What really happened is that someone played around with the numbers. Shamai Golan, the accommodating spokesman of the Anti-Drug Authority explained that the survey asked youngsters if they ever tried potentially addictive substances including magic markers. If the child took the cap off a marker in class and smelled it, he became a statistic. It’s just that that isn’t quite enough for a headline-grabbing story on the front page of the newspaper or for a terse press release from the Authority.


No one has really misled us - they never really mislead - the numbers just got a little help on their way to us. The intentions are worthy: The public needs to be made aware that the phenomenon is spreading. Besides, if no one is shocked how will we get our budgets next year?


Now on the other hand there are the media and the public - and no one dares to argue. That is all we need - children sniffing themselves to death because of us. 


No victims left 


Some 10,000 people die every year from smoking says the Israel Cancer Society. Smoking is a terrible thing. No argument that it is a killer but I have a question for the experts: My grandfather is 98 years old and has been smoking a pack a day for 83 of them. If he passes on tomorrow, God forbid, (and to my relatives in Haifa, not to worry, he’s healthy as a horse), will it be recorded as a death caused by smoking? 


And what smoke are they talking about anyway? According to a survey from the Ministry for Environmental Protection together with the Nature Defense Organization, air pollution is the cause of some 1,100 deaths a year in the greater Tel Aviv area. Rivka, the polite secretary for the Tel Aviv area Chevra Kadisha Burial Society told me that they bury 7,500 people a year on average. 


Subtract old age, illnesses, accidents, terror attacks, drug overdoses and just bad luck and you’ll find that there are not enough victims left for air pollution. And then there’s my grandfather; he’s still 98 and lives in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area, near the Redding Power Station. Suppose he dies of some respiratory illness (to my relatives in Haifa, he doesn’t even have a hearing aid and he watched the world cup soccer games with me), the greens and cancer activists with fight over him until his last ash. 


If we believe the statistics, there’s a feeling that Israel faces a severe shortage of dead bodies. “2,000 people die every year because medical information is lacking,” according to a recent medical conference last December attended by the Deputy Comptroller of the Finance Ministry and senior health officials. They said that the reason for the deaths is a delay in the arrival of the computerized medical data at the time of hospitalization. No one suggested that at least in some of the 2,000 tragic instances are connected to the fact that they were, well, sick. 


By the way this is not the only risk factor that we are not aware of. In May of 2005, for example, the health supplement of Ynet carried an article by Ofer Meir on heart disease. The wonderful headline read: “Death in midlife - a dangerous medical occurrence.” 


One is six women? 


But let’s get serious: The Social Welfare Ministry reported two years ago that there are 141,710 battered women in Israel. There is nothing more terrible or more disgusting than a man who beats his wife is. Once, I planned together with someone I know who was a warden in the prison authority, to set up an organization of tough guys who would beat the crap out of anyone who raises a hand to a woman. Law and order defeated the idea but I’ve always regretted we didn’t carry it through. 


On the other hand, is it really true that one out of every six women in Israel is battered? Or maybe there’s a link between the publication of the survey and the Welfare Ministry’s request for another 20 million shekels to deal with the phenomenon. 


By the way, the ministry has not paid attention to the fact that its findings are actually an astounding improvement in the situation. An earlier survey from the Naamat women's organization indicated that more than 200,000 women in Israel were the victims of spousal abuse, meaning that 60,000 husbands stopped beating their lucky wives on the same day. 


Wait; don’t get angry with me. That’s what always happens: The studies hit the television and newspapers and no one has the courage to challenge the findings lest people think them unfeeling. 


I am not talking here about justice but about accuracy. “Three to five of every 10 women,” reads a study published on the WIZO women's organization web site, “suffer from sexual harassment.” 


Excuse me, is it three or five? More than 700,000 women are hanging in the balance here. Now all I’m missing is someone who will think that I don’t take sexual harassment seriously. But I do, very seriously. So much so that I want to know if the statistics reflect reality. 


Depressed? You're not alone 


By the way, if this discussion is depressing you, you are not alone. A survey done by Lundback, covered extensively in the media, indicates that “30 percent of the Israeli population are being treated or have been treated with antidepressants.” 


30 percent! More than two million people! According to the survey and I quote: “16 percent of the Israeli population suffers today or in the past from depression.” If you are not too disheartened then maybe you have noticed that according to the learned study, 14 percent of the public take antidepressants without actually suffering the symptoms. 


Whatever. A national health study carried out in May 2005 found that only 8.5 percent of the Israeli population suffers now or in the past from problems related to depression. This is much more in line with international statistics (4.4 percent). I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I take mental disorders lightly but it’s a little difficult to dignify the findings of the Lundback study (which by the way manufactures Cipralex a drug used in the treatment of guess what?). 


On the other hand, people always respond differently to statistics that affect them personally. I have maintained for years that in 1982 I participated in the ‘Protest of 400,000’ at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. 


Hillel Partuk, the cooperative Tel Aviv municipal Spokesman, patiently explained to me that the issue has been examined a dozen times: You can squeeze maybe 40,000 people into the Square and that’s toe-to-toe with minimal breathing. The Israeli police say that including people standing along the streets that line the square you can count on approximately150,000 and that’s the maximum. However, according to 52 percent of myself, I was one of them, 48 percent of me believes I was just passing by.


פרסום ראשון: 07.03.06, 17:16
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