NEWARK, N.J., FEB. 24 -- A former top officer of Philip Morris Inc. today portrayed "very tough" Federal Trade Commission rules as a barrier to passing on to consumers the company's information on less hazardous cigarettes and on the potential health hazards of smoking.

The rules cited by chairman emeritus Joseph F. Cullman III prohibited tobacco companies from claiming health benefits in cigarette advertising.

His contention drew repeated challenges from Marc Z. Edell, a plaintiff's lawyer in the trial of the Rose D. Cipollone smoker-death case in U.S. District Court here. The contention was also disputed later in Washington by lawyer Matthew L. Myers, who was the FTC official responsible for all tobacco-related issues in 1980 and 1981.

Drawing on previously confidential Philip Morris documents, Edell produced a July 1956 memo from company research chief R.N. DuPuis to Cullman, then a senior executive, and other officials.

"Decreased carbon monoxide and nicotine are related to decreased harm to the circulatory system as a result of smoking," DuPuis wrote. "Decreased irritation is desirable not only from the subjective viewpoint but also as a partial elimination of a potential cancer hazard."

Asked why Philip Morris hadn't told the public about this, possibly in a warning on cigarette packages, Cullman cited the FTC ban on health claims in ads. He also said the agency might construe "a statement outside of advertising as advertising."

Did the FTC rules prevent the company "from advising consumers of health hazards?" Edell asked. "The answer to that is yes," Cullman replied.

In exchanges with lawyers on three separate issues during his first full day on the witness stand, Cullman testified that the company hadn't tried to find out from the FTC if it could disclose health-related scientific evidence to the public.

One of the exchanges involved two Philip Morris cigarette brands. Cullman testified that when condensed tars from their smoke were painted onto the backs of mice, the animals developed fewer tumors than when condensate from regular cigarettes was applied.

Edell asked Cullman what effort Philip Morris had made to present the findings to the FTC.

"I have no intelligent answer to that," Cullman replied.

A company spokesman did not respond to a reporter's request for information about the mice tests.

Former agency official Myers said that if any tobacco company could document that it had developed a safer product, "nothing in the FTC law ... would have prevented them from doing so."

Emphasizing that the FTC rules prohibited only "health claims that were patently false and deceptive," he said it was "nonsense" for anyone to cite those rules as a reason for not bringing evidence of hazards to the agency.

An FTC spokesman said the agency couldn't comment because the Cipollone case is "pending litigation." In addition to Philip Morris, Antonio Cipollone is suing Liggett Group Inc. and P. Lorillard Inc. for his wife's death from lung cancer.

At several points, Cullman's testimony appeared to conflict with the views of other industry leaders, officials of his own company, and a deposition he gave in October 1984.

One example concerned the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC). Formed in 1954, it is now the Committee for Tobacco Research (CTR).

Cullman testified that the industry formed TIRC out of "sincere conviction" of the need "to get to the bottom of this problem" of smoking and health. He rejected as "not a fact" Edell's suggestion that most of TIRC's research was "not relevant" to smoking and health.

The lawyer then showed Cullman a 1974 memo from Lorillard research chief A.W. Spears to company president Curtis H. Judge, who served with Cullman on the CTR board.

Spears wrote: "Historically, the joint industry-funded smoking and health research programs have not been selected against specific scientific goals, but rather for various purposes, such as public relations, political relations, position for litigation, etc."

Edell asked Cullman whether Judge told him of this. The Philip Morris executive said he had "no recollection."

In 1970, Helmut Wakeham, who was Philip Morris' research vice president, wrote a memo in which he told former Sen. Earle Clements, then president of the Tobacco Institute, that "unrestricted medical research ... is actually the case with about half of our CTR and {American Medical Association} expenditures ... but much of the grant work has little or no relevance to smoking and health, in my opinion."

Asked about Wakeham's "no relevance" judgment, Cullman said, "I would disagree with that entirely."