Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. wants to whisper in your ear.

The folks who brought you Lucky Strike, Kool and battles over cancer are "in love with you."

Packs of cigarettes from the nation's third-largest tobacco company now feature, along with all the health warnings, an 800 phone number that is answered by a come-hither male voice.

"We're a giant corporation and you make us feel like a little kitten," the voice coos. "Thank you . . . lover."

Little kitten?

Lover?

Yes, this is for real.

Company spokesman Mark Smith said the Louisville-based firm wanted to "put [on] more of a human face." It is "our attempt to have some fun and be more approachable." The toll-free number (1-800-578-7453) offers "adult smokers" the chance to get on a mailing list, order merchandise catalogues or ask questions.

"What are they smokin?' " asked an incredulous executive at another tobacco company.

As word spread of this latest twist in tobacco marketing, not everyone was smitten.

Some smoking foes worried that B&W was exploring a new avenue to expand sales--one that's "less visible" than traditional magazines and promotions and designed to "offset the marketing restrictions" placed on tobacco by last year's multi-state tobacco settlement, said Matthew Myers, of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

While the voice tells callers, "If you're not 21 . . . please hang up now," Myers said there are clear difficulties in verifying that callers are not underage.

Since the 1998 settlement banned tobacco billboards and limited sports sponsorships, the industry has been exploring new marketing approaches. The companies face even stricter limits under federal regulations they are challenging in a case to be argued later this year before the Supreme Court.

The industry spends billions each year on advertising and marketing--more than $5.6 billion in 1997, according to the Federal Trade Commission's most recent report. And while the top three--Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and B&W--all use toll-free numbers, until now they've offered traditional fare.

One source familiar with tobacco marketing wondered if Brown & Williamson had now "created something more cost-effective than sending out random mailings or buying ads."

Reviews by ad executives and others, however, were decidedly downbeat. "Bizarre, sophomoric, stupid," came the comments of several who listened to the come-hither pitch. "I think it's a major turnoff," said Ellis Verdi, president of New York's DeVito/Verdi ad agency. "Love is a pretty big word. For a cigarette company to do that, I know they are after something."

While Smith said the number of customer calls racked up each day is a "proprietary secret,"--you know how lovers are--he did say calling volume is up, and so are the number of hang-ups, in which callers listen but don't stick around to access further information.

He added that the company works hard to verify ages, insisting that customers sign a pledge that they are at least 21 and send back a copy of a driver's license before receiving catalogues or other items. "My response to Mr. Myers," Smith said, "is 'Lighten up.' "

A Philip Morris spokesman, declining comment, didn't rise to the bait that B&W lays out in its parting shot on its 800-line: "By the way," the voice says, "the other tobacco companies hate you and think you're ugly. They told us so."