After four years of negotiations, the 192-member World Health Organization has adopted, by consensus, the world's first international treaty aimed at curbing tobacco smoking. Health ministers attending the World Health Assembly in Geneva proclaimed their belief that the tobacco control treaty will save countless lives. The director general of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland, described the adoption of the Tobacco Control Treaty as an historic moment in global public health.

"It is a demonstration of the international will to tackle a global threat head on," she said. "We are acting in this way to save billions of lives and protect people's health for generations to come."

"The WHO says five million people die prematurely each year of tobacco-related causes. It predicts the death toll could double to 10 million in less than two decades if countries do not implement the measures outlined in the treaty.

The treaty requires countries to impose limits on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion within five years. It also provides for tougher measures against passive, or second-hand, smoke and cracks down on smuggling.

Dr. Brundtland says she believes the treaty will reverse a dangerous public health trend. "We have by this been able to cut that trend, to change it so that millions and millions of lives will be saved for decades and centuries," she said. "Remember, people start smoking young, and many of them continue for life. And they shorten their lives, they have more disease."

South Africa is one of a few developing countries that already have tough anti-tobacco laws. South Africa's health minister, Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, says these laws have dramatically reduced smoking, especially among young people. But, she adds, her country cannot rest on its laurels, and that is why it considers the Tobacco Control Treaty important.

"We are delighted that it has been adopted today," said the South African minister. "We believe that it will provide a good basis and platform for tobacco control. No country, no matter how careful it is about tobacco control, can fully succeed on its own. Cross-border advertising continues to be a major problem."

The South African health minister says the treaty creates an effective tool for her country and other African nations to combat the deadly scourge of smoking.

The treaty will come into force when it is ratified by 40 countries. WHO says it expects this process to take about a year.