NEWARK, FEB. 16 -- The researcher who led the development of a safer cigarette for Liggett Group Inc. testified in a smoker-death trial today that he visited the White House in 1977 as part of a broad effort to remove possible obstacles to marketing the product.

The cigarette -- a product of 24 years of Liggett-sponsored research -- incorporated tiny amounts of the heavy metal palladium and magnesium nitrate. In unchallenged tests in which condensed smoke tars were applied to mouse skin, it lowered the incidence of tumors and cancers by 89 percent to 100 percent as compared with ordinary cigarettes.

James D. Mold, former assistant research director of Liggett's tobacco unit, testified his concern was that "if the Federal Trade Commission chose to be very sticky about it, it would be very difficult to advertise, to make any {health} claim. And we wanted to find out if we could get some assistance from the White House in, let's say, pressuring the {FTC} to be a little lenient on this, or at least to understand our problem."

In a videotaped deposition that will end Wednesday, its third day, Mold explained to the jury in U.S. District Court that "it was generally accepted that no health claims {for cigarettes} could be made in advertising ... we didn't want to go out with something that we didn't know what the response was going to be."

But, he testified, "I felt that we could make some claims about this product that were valid ... {that} this looks like it may have a beneficial effect."

Mold disclosed that the White House visit -- to Charles O'Keefe, an assistant health adviser to President Carter -- was arranged by a lobbyist.

Under cross-examination by Liggett attorney James V. Kearney, he also said that he felt he "might have a favorable ear" in the Carter White House because the administration wanted "to sort of cushion" the assaults on smoking by Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

Kearney told reporters that the purpose of his cross-examination was to counter Mold's direct testimony by demonstrating "there is no substance to the plaintiff's charge that the palladium nitrate development was suppressed or kept secret.

"Dr. Mold testified at length about the disclosures of the development to the scientific community, to government health officials and in press accounts," Kearney said.

Liggett never marketed the palladium cigarette. "At every turn, the company got no encouragement," Kearney said. "What it got was indifference or criticism."

Marc Z. Edell, lawyer for the widowed husband of Rose D. Cipollone, tried to persuade the jury to accept a much different account. Mold told Edell, for example, that under rules laid down by the late Liggett Vice President Joseph Greer, who was chief in-house counsel, he was forbidden to hold press conferences on the new cigarette.

He said Greer also ordered him to leave no written materials on the palladium cigarette with any outsiders -- even those at the White House, the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society. The absence of documentation chilled possible support, Edell indicated.

Mold also told Edell that Liggett suppressed the palladium cigarette because allowing it to be marketed "would seriously indict them" for having sold regular cigarettes that didn't contain the additives believed to protect against lung cancer. This disease caused Mrs. Cipollone's death in 1984.

The witness said company managers agreed with him that there was no good scientific reason not to market the palladium cigarette, but that he resigned in 1979 because of severe doubts it would ever go on sale. He said he signed on as a consultant for five more years after being assured that the cigarette would be introduced in Europe. Efforts to do this failed.