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Smoke Signal

The World Health Assembly's agreement in Geneva on a global antitobacco treaty will give a welcome boost to efforts to end the smoking scourge. But far more is needed than mere signatures on a document.

The treaty calls for a ban on tobacco advertising and requires health warnings to cover 30 percent of a cigarette package. It sets goals on secondhand smoke, health education, and cigarette taxes.

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The United States this week ensured approval of the text when it dropped its previous opposition. US diplomats had objected that an advertising ban would violate the First Amendment. Apparently, however, Washington judged that the draft treaty's language permitting each country to act "in accordance with its constitution" satisfied that concern.

But Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who represented the US at the final talks, made no commitment that the president would sign the treaty or send it to the Senate. Whether the upper house would ratify the treaty even if Mr. Bush does sign is an open question.

But like so many international agreements - take human rights, for instance - the treaty will be nearly meaningless unless the countries that sign it also implement it. Wealthy countries already have serious and fairly effective antitobacco campaigns. The developing nations that pushed so strongly for the treaty could have adopted antismoking policies without it.

Even so, if the document nudges governments in the right direction, and helps even a bit to blunt tobacco companies' efforts at inducing adolescents in more countries to smoke, that will be a very good thing.