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In recent weeks leading newspapers have carried full-page advertisements for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. They were message ads, effective ones.

The first featured a large photograph of a fat-faced man smiling a somehow menacing smile. Below it was the headline: "Who Should Be Responsible for Your Children, a Bureaucrat or You?""The federal bureaucracy wants to tell you and your children how to behave," the text said. "They want to become responsible for teaching your children about important lifestyle decisions and values . . . ."

The unmentioned target was President Clinton's proposed measures to discourage teenage children from smoking. On the basis of a scientific finding that nicotine is an addictive drug, he would prohibit the sale of cigarettes in vending machines and forbid tobacco company sponsorship of sports events.

The Reynolds campaign shrewdly seizes on the current political fashion in this country, hatred of the government. But it is just a tiny bit deceptive in suggesting that what is involved here is an attempt to dictate children's "lifestyles."

On the logic of this advertising, there should be no government efforts to prevent driving by children. Liquor should be available in vending machines to which children have easy access.

A civilized community has just as much interest in keeping cigarettes away from children as it does in preventing underage driving and drinking. For what is at issue is not just a private "lifestyle." It is an addiction that imposes terrible costs on the community, killing more people than alcohol or road accidents.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 418,000 smokers die each year from tobacco-related causes.

Drug and alcohol abuse are universally recognized as social ills. But illness caused by smoking costs the government twice as much as the medical effects of those two combined: more than $48 billion in payments for Medicare, Medicaid, veterans' care and the like.

Adults are free to run the risks of smoking. But if you asked heavy smokers whether they wanted their children to take up the habit, my guess is that most would say no. They know how powerful the addiction is, how hard to escape.

If we are to reduce the human and material cost of smoking, it is crucial to keep children from becoming hooked. That is why Clinton proposed his program. And that is why R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies are fighting it.

The Reynolds ad campaign, with its kind offer of a brochure for parents to help teenagers resist peer pressure for smoking, is laughable hypocrisy. Tobacco companies strive to hook young people. And not least Reynolds, with its Joe Camel cartoon designed to appeal to kids.

A 1973 memorandum by an R.J. Reynolds official, recently disclosed, outlined a strategy to attract "learning smokers." A Reynolds spokesman said it never became company policy.

Tobacco people live a dilemma. They merchandise death, and they want to prosper in their business. But they also want to look - and feel - like decent citizens. We may appreciate their dilemma. But we do not have to believe them.