Drug Fair Inc. announced its participation yesterday in a health care program that company officials hope will change each outlet's image from a pharmacy to a "health care center."

The program, in conjunction with the Center for Consumer Heath Education, will cost the company "well into six figures," said Milton Elsberg, Drug Fair's president.

It is designed to provide literature in all of Drug Fair's 170 outlets that explains children's health care, Medicare programs, how to evaluate personal lifestyle as it affects overall health and how to begin an exercise program.

The series of pamphlets, which are expected to be available today at all Drug Fair pharmacy counters, were prepared by the center, a nonprofit foundation that distributes health care literature.

Dr. Donald M. Vickery, president of the center, said the goal of the effort, which will be billed as "Taking Care," is to change the information mix that people deal with in their everyday lives."

At a press conference, Vickery, Drug Fair officials and several local medical representatives explained that personal health care is often too dominated by inadequate information and faddishness.

"I am most impressed with the fact that the program will emphasize that the individual is the key decision maker in matters of health and that acceptance of such a role creates new responsibilities for the individual," said Esther Peterson, the White House consumer affairs adviser.

Asked about whether Drug Fair's corporate sponsorship of the program suggested a contradiction for a company in business to sell drugs, Myron Gerber, Drug Fair's chairman said the question provided the company's board with a perplexing decision.

We talked and argued it over," Gerber said. "There is no question but that certain infections, for instance, are treated with certain antibiotics and we should try to sell them that.

"But that is a need we can satisfy without indiscriminate sales of drugs. Our integrity is involved."

"We will be able to sell Drug Fair as a health care facility. Obviously we hope to get more feet into our stores, by telling people about their most precious possession, their health."

Vickery said the overall impression of most health care literature is "the impression that there is a pill for every problem, that dealing with poor health habits is a matter of finding the right 'secret' treatment and that health depends most upon instant and continuous access to medical services.

"In contrast," he said, "we believe that there is ample evidence which indicates the overwhelming importance of personal management of life-styles and the use of health care services."

The program includes distribution of a vial to be placed in a consumer's refrigerator that will hold records on personal medical history, in case of home emergency.

In addition, Drug Fair is expanding its 10 percent discount for senior citizens purchasing many drug products to all prescription drugs and Drug Fair brand merchandise, including convalescent aids.

Drug Fair's newspaper and radio advertising to promote the "Taking Care" program will begin immediately.

Drug Fair is funding the advertising and printing of the literature, which company officials expect to be available at all 170 Drug Fair stores in the region immediately.

The radio messages will drive home further the attempt to build a new image for the chain. "Remember Drug Fair for health care," the radio spots conclude.