Two years ago, in the midst of a ballyhooed fight to strip the Federal Trade Commission of much of its powers, Sen. Wendall Ford (D-Ky.) led a charge to limit the agency's authority to issue rules about "unfair" advertising.

Now, Ford, who was chairman of the Senate's consumer subcommittee, wants the FTC to begin a rulemaking proceeding aimed at putting tougher warnings on cigarette packs.

Why? The reason is simple. For the first time in a decade, the Senate appears to be on the verge of seriously considering legislation that would stiffen the warnings. The new warnings would point out that the Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking causes a series of illnesses including heart disease, emphysema and cancer.

Legislation that would do that, as well as strengthen the federal government's anti-smoking effort, has been introduced by two powerful Senate committee chairmen, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, and Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), chairman of the Commerce Committee. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of a health subcommittee.

Both are committed to hearings on the issue and both have been outspoken in their view that the public continues to smoke cigarettes in enormous quantities because of inadequate public information. "Simply stated, the goal of this bill is to replace ignorance and misunderstanding with knowledge," Hatch said in introducing the legislation in December.

But Ford, a long-time advocate of tobacco interests, has circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter to other Senate members calling the bill a "misguided effort to achieve through legislation a regulatory policy" that the FTC "should propose through rulemaking procedure."

Ford charged in that Dec. 15 letter that the two sponsors' "paternalistic" effort would set up the secretary of Health and Human Services as "a czar of personal behavior to coordinate a multitude of government programs, research projects and behavioral studies to tell people what's good for them.

"Smoking," he continued, "happens to be today's targeted behavior, but who knows what tomorrow may bring?"

The irony in Ford's statements lies in the fact that one of the sponsors of the legislation is none other than Hatch, a staunch conservative whose congressional record is anything but layered with efforts to expand the federal presence in the marketplace.

In fact, the bill requires cigarette manufacturers to replace the current warning label with five new warnings and to tell the FTC and HHS of the level of chemical additives in cigarettes.