PETER TAYLOR is the British television producer-reporter who did a documentary a few years ago called Death in the West -- The Marlboro Story, in which he interviewed six American cowboys who had two things in common: they had been heavy smokers for many years and they were dying of lung cancer. The most memorable of the lot was the cowboy who rode the range with tubes running out of his nose to oxygen tanks strapped to his horse.

Philip Morris, makers of the cigarette, went bonkers when it heard its famous invitation, "Come to Marlboro Country," used to introduce these cripples, so it went to court and the documentary promptly died of injunctive emphysema. Except for a bootleg version, it hasnever been shown in the United States.

But Taylor does not give up easily, and here he returns to the attack with The Smoke Ring: Tobacco, Money, and Multinational Politics, a book that incidentally raises the question of how come British TV manages to find such literate personnel and our TV industry is so luckless in that regard.

Fear not; this isn't just another antismoking treatise. It is a sensible and altogether fair consideration of "why governments place wealth before health" and an examination of "the political and economic mechanisms of the power of tobacco." Taylor pursues his objective in a sprightly style, avoiding the medical soupiness and keeping his eye always on the hard-headed (and often wry, not to mention grotesque) political and economic practicalities.

We're talking big bucks. We're talking six giants who produce around 40 percent of the world's cigarettes (the rest are produced by state-owned companies, ostly in communist countries). The biggest of the lot is British-American Tobacco Industries (BAT), which employs a quarter million people and sells $10 billion worth of cigarettes each year in 78 countries on six continents.

When an industry pumps that kind of money into the employment-taxation pipeline, it's mighty hard for politicians to act as upset as you might expect from the fact that this same industry produces a commodity that, by Taylor's count, "has wiped out more people than all the wars of this century."

Politicians have counted the dead, have weighed them against tobacco's economic bounty, and have cold-bloodedly come down in favor of the latter. Taylor doesn't agree with the decision, of course, but he sympathizes. After all, tobacco is Britain's third biggest source of consumer revenue, and "an analysis of the cost of a packet of twenty cigarettes shows why governments hold tobacco so dear; the retailer gets roughly ten pence; the manufacturer fifteen pence; and the Chancellor of the Exchequer seventy-five pence." In this country, tobacco's contribution is equally bountiful -- $57 billion of the GNP, $14 billion of total federal tax revenue, $7 billion of total state and local tax revenues, and a $2 billion net surplus on the balance of payments. It creates jobs for nearly half a million people directly and 2 million overall.

It is hardly surprising that Congress and the president -- any Congress and any president -- buckle under so easily to the relative handful of members (tobacco is a major crop in only 27 of our 531 congressional districts) who front for the industry. Parliaments and prime minsiters, we learn, are just as sympathetic to this deadly business.

But that is hardly the end of tobacco's moneyed influence. It spends $2 billion a year globally on advertising (by comparison, the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association spend about $7 million on antismoking education) "to reinforce its own myth that smoking is a socially desirable habit," writes Taylor, and he is so rude as to notice that this outlay buys, if not always support, at least a congenial silence. Some of the popular magazines, such as Ms. and Redbook, that get as much as 16 percent of their revenue from cigarette advertising, according to the American Council on Science and Health, carry a lot of health articles but none on the hazards of smoking.

Although their ads have for years been banned from television in both this country and England, the tobacco companies have managed, especially in England, to buy their way around that proscription very nicely. They sponsor athletic events, everything from car races to cricket matches, where cigarette brand names are splattered all over the scenery -- which is much cheaper and more effective than straight advertising. In a typical year, the BBC (its officials admit "we are being used") carries close to 300 hours of these cigarette-sponsored events.

And of course tobacco money reaches flood tide when the industry is scared by something like California's Proposition 5, which offered voters a chance to outlaw smoking in public places. At first it was given a 3 to 1 chance of passing, but the industry bought enough media space -- spending more than the two gubernatorial candidates combined -- to sink it.

This story is not wrapped entirely in pessimism. Not all public officials bow to the industry's demands. President Reagan may have promised North Carolina tobacco farmers that "my own Cabinet members will be far too busy with substantive matters to waste their time proselytizing against the dangers of cigarette smoking," but in fact when Richard Schweiker was Reagan's Health and Human Services secretary he supported Surgeon General Everett Koop's militant opposition to cigarette smoking. Indeed, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms accused Schweiker of being guilty of "incipient Califanoism" -- a nice backhanded compliment to one of Schweiker's predecessors, Joe Califano, whose antismoking zeal helped get him bounced from the Carter Cabinet.

Consumers, too, are coming to their senses. While America's 53 million smokers are spending more than ever on their habit, the number of smokers is declining -- down 17 million since the U.S. Surgeon General's report in 1964. In England, cigarette smoking still kills eight times more than the number who die in auto accidents, but at the same time Britain can now claim twice as many nonsmokers as smokers.

These declines are more than made up, however, in the Third World, which is puffing up a storm. America exports nearly half of the tobacco it produces, and most of it is dumped on the Third World. Twenty percent of Thailand's individual income goes into cigarettes. Cigarette consumption in Pakistan is growing six times faster than in most Western countries; in Brazil, eight times faster. The lung cancer rate is, of course, also jumping. But what tobacco does to Bril's lungs is nothing compared to what it is doing to Brazil's landscape. The province where 70 percent of Brazil's tobacco is produced was once heavily forested. Now its horizon is barren of trees. They were chopped down, at the rate of 1.5 million acres of forest a year, to burn for curing tobacco.

If that situation sounds just a bit irrational, it fits very well into much of this story, which abounds with people like the Philip Morris vice president who argued that eating too much applesauce could be just as harmful as smoking too many cigarettes; with organizations such as the AMA, which, while certifying the deadliness of tobacco, held $1.4 million worth of shares in tobacco companies and gave political support to tobacco crop subsidies; and with consumers such as the 48 percent of lung cancer patients who begin smoking again shortly after leaving their tumors at the hospital.

The Smoke Ring says a lot for Peter Taylor's intligence, but not much for mankind's.