"I don't want to look at another article telling me what's good and bad for me," said Hiroshi Wald, 25, as he ordered his second martini at Merchants, one of New York's hip new cocktail lounges. His drinking partner, Liz Cully, 32, was smoking a cigarette.

"First they say red wine's bad. Then red wine's good," said Wald, a marketing consultant visiting from Los Angeles. "I'm going to eat red meat and make my own health decisions. I'm sick of people telling us what to do."

Some health experts say Wald's attitude is similar to that of many other people these days who are sick of this country's obsession with health. The telltale sign, they say, is the emergence of trendy new cigar bars and hot-spot cocktail lounges with martini bars in major cities across the country. They point to a few scientific studies, but mostly it is anecdotal information:

Overall alcohol consumption in the United States has been declining for 16 years. But the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which represents the manufacturers of spirits, said consumption of hard liquor is up 3.1 percent since last year.

The martini craze may be confined to to a small segment of the population now, but "these trends are important to look at because they do diffuse through the rest of society," said Thomas Greenfield, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group, an independent government-funded institute in Berkeley, Calif.

Nonetheless, the increase has been noticed. Jim Higgins, owner of Club Lucky, a Chicago restaurant that attracts a casual clientele, said sales of classic cocktails are up 10 percent this year. And at FiftySeven FiftySeven, a posh restaurant and martini bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, alcohol sales have surged 20 percent within the past two years, said Ingo King, an assistant manager. At New York's venerable 21 Club, cigar sales have increased 20 percent in the past year.

"Drinking during the day is a dead concept, but we've seen a huge improvement at cocktail and dinner hours," said Christopher Shipley, 21's beverage manager.

Six million more hamburgers and 8 million more orders of french fries were consumed in 1996 than in 1995, according to a survey published in November by the NDP Group in Rosemont, Ill., a marketing company that has been tracing U.S. eating habits since 1980. They extrapolated their results from two-week food journals of 2,000 Americans.

Sales of high-fat cheeses, such as brie, have increased 7.2 percent since last year, according to the International Dairy Foods Association in Washington. Nonfat brands grew a mere 0.7 percent.

Consumption of super premium ice cream, with the most butterfat, increased 5.3 percent in the past year. It had dropped 2 percent from 1994 to 1995.

"You can't deny {that} people are concerned about health, but there's less concern than a few years ago when people were monitoring every little gram," said Susan Kjellqvist, a research analyst for the Dairy Association. Retro Is Hip

Is this the beginning of a backlash against the health movement that has held sway for nearly a quarter-century? Or is it just a small pop cultural phenomenon that will go the way of the organic juice bar?

Many of the newly popular cigar and martini bars are reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart films: Men wear hats and hold a martini in one hand, a cigar in the other. Except this time around, women are smoking cigars too.

Retro, short for retrospective, is the name for this fashion that incorporates drinks, clothes and restaurant decor of years past. Nostalgia is hip.

Health experts are divided about whether retro chic reflects major changes in behavior or lifestyles. Certainly, some researchers dismiss the rejuvenation of the martini as merely a fleeting trend. They point to packed health clubs and an ever-growing supply of fat-free snacks. They say the spirits and cigar fad is simply a marketing ploy to reverse slumping sales.

As David Musto, a professor of psychiatry and medical history at Yale University, explains: "The nature of a fad is that it appears to go in the face of conventional wisdom, so you have these people who get a great deal of joy doing something shocking or contradictory."

Then again, there are other experts who claim the whole health movement of the past 25 years was more rhetoric than reality. Warren Belasco, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, believes that respondents to surveys report that they eat healthier than they actually do. He said the change in attitude, if there has been one, is that people are no longer concerned about sounding "nutritionally correct."

Between these two extremes is a growing group of sociologists, health policy experts and medical historians who perceive a more profound shift in people's attitudes about health. Ruth Engs, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University in Bloomington who tracks American attitudes toward health, believes the current changes follow a pattern in American history. Health movements, she explains, are cyclical.

"What has been going on in the U.S. in the last 25 years occurred in the beginning of the century and in the middle of last century -- a resurgence of a new clean living movement. And I think what is happening now is the cresting of the movement," said Engs. "It goes in cycles, like skirt lengths, and I think we are beginning to swing the other way."

All three movements have been characterized by efforts to oppose alcohol, tobacco and drugs and to promote exercise, clean water and environmental standards. Concurrent with these movements, she added, are strides for women's rights and sexual abstinence.

In the first movement, between 1830 and 1850, the Northern states banned alcohol and many communities prohibited smoking in public. There was also a push for women to exercise and to stop eating meat. The era ended with the political upheaval that preceded the Civil War.

In the second movement, at the turn of the century, health enthusiasts stressed prohibition and anti-tobacco policies, as well as warning about the dangers of unfiltered water, red meat and excess caffeine. This effort waned with the start of World War II.

The third movement, beginning with the surgeon general's report against smoking, has dominated the 1970s and '80s.

Engs and others say the popularity of the martini is symbolic of a cultural trend. They perceive discontent among the health-obsessed masses. They contend that people are fed up with just saying no. It may not be a full-blown backlash against healthy living, they say, but it may reflect a desire for a more lax attitude about personal habits.

James Whorton, professor of medical history at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of "Crusaders for Fitness: The History of American Health Reformers," agrees. "There's been so much emphasis on not eating fat, drinking moderately, exercising. I think people are running out of patience. We are becoming cynical. We are revolting against the self-denial. I think we will see an increase in the consumption of alcohol and smoking cigarettes." Proving Cause and Effect

Recommendations from public health experts over the past 25 years to stop smoking, drink less alcohol, exercise and improve eating habits by reducing fat and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables have met with varying success.

But how much impact do these lifestyle choices have on overall health? And how much do they reflect cultural trends?

With the exception of cigarette smoking the evidence is not definitive, say scientists. To be sure, death rates from cancer and heart disease have been dropping in correspondence with a decline in the consumption of fat and alcohol. From 1983 through 1993, deaths from cardiovascular disease declined 23.1 percent, according to the most recent statistics of the American Heart Association. Also, the cancer death rate in the United States fell by nearly 3 percent from 1991 to 1995, according to statistics of the National Cancer Institute.

Yet no one can say with certainty that dietary changes are the primary reason. Improvements in medical technology that enable doctors to detect diseases earlier and advances in drugs to treat illnesses have played significant roles too. The upshot is that in most cases it is difficult to determine if better medicine, better diet or luck -- or a combination of all three -- is the reason for the improvements.

"We've had a decline in saturated fat consumption and red meat, and you can correlate that with a subsequent decline in mortality of heart disease, but you can't say {a change in diet} caused" the lower death rates, said Charles Hennekens, a professor at Harvard Medical School and chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

In essence, the fundamental limitation of epidemiological studies -- the kind that link rates of disease with risk factors -- is that they do not prove cause and effect. Yet health advocates believe the epidemiologic evidence, although far from definitive, is strongly suggestive. For instance, Hennekens said studies tracing disease rates among the Japanese have shown that as the Japanese have adopted "Western" eating styles -- more fat and red meat -- they have suffered more heart disease and colon cancer.

Hennekens also pointed out that results from three human studies -- one each from the United States, Scandinavia and Scotland -- indicate that decreases in cholesterol and blood pressure decrease heart disease.

But in these studies the participants took drugs. All this suggests that if rigorous dietary changes do indeed lower cholesterol and blood pressure, then such changes might reduce the incidence of certain diseases. On the other hand, the study results may also encourage people to take the easier way out: drugs rather than diet. What's more, there is no proof that eating nonfat yogurt will prevent heart disease.

"The studies looking at fat and risk of heart disease are inconsistent," said Eric Rimm, an assistant professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Fat is a complicated issue because there are so many types. . . . No one has really done a study to find out how much heart disease is due to genetics and how much to other factors." Aiming for a Balance

Danny Abrams, owner of Prohibition and Vermouth, two hip New York bars, believes that the changes he is seeing at his bars are not so much a backlash as a melding of healthy living and splurging. The alcohol in one martini, he explained, is no different from that in a few glasses of wine. Yet there is something about holding the wide-mouthed glass that creates a feeling of indulgence without really being very indulgent at all, Abrams said. People are striving to relax without completely rebelling.

To be sure, the buzzword among the cocktail crowd seems to be balance. Patricia Beggiato, owner of the tony Sesto Senso, a Washington restaurant with a martini-cigar bar, put it this way, "I definitely think everyone was so health, health, health. It's not that they go out and get totally sloshed but . . . they have one martini and a cigar. It's balance."

Even historian Engs agreed. "I predict we are aiming for a balance," she said. "Pipes will come back after cigars -- moderate smoking and drinking." She also predicts more smoking and drinking in films. "It no longer seems politically incorrect for stars to light up in films," said Sam Maser, director of the 1996 Hamptons International Film Festival, who added that several new films, such as "Primal Fear," "First Wives' Club" and "She's the One," show characters smoking frequently. In "Brassed Off" -- the opening night film at the Sundance Film Festival last year -- Tara Fitzgerald and Ewan MacGregor, the two stars, smoke in virtually every romantic scene, Maser noted.

Engs said a flurry of recent articles poking fun at American's austerity indicate a growing discontent and are harbingers of change. For example, she pointed to the publication last June of David Shaw's book "The Pleasure Police," a chapter-by-chapter diatribe against health extremism, and a November New Yorker article by James Atlas, "The Fall of Fun."

Whorton, the University of Washington historian, made a link between health habits and the public's political psyche. When people are optimistic about society, they are optimistic about themselves and feel empowered to improve themselves through diet and exercise, he said. On the contrary, he suggests, a cynical feeling toward the government pervades the psyche and instills a "why bother?" attitude.

The experts seem to concur that this love-hate relationship with food and exercise is very American. Europeans generally consume the same kind of diet year in and year out. On this side of the Atlantic, people are formula-seekers, looking for the quick route to happiness, to "maximize our individual potential," said Yale's Musto. This ingrained American trait, more than anything else, may explain why Americans are such extremists.

But if the quick fix does not yield immediate results, expectations plummet. CAPTION: The late actor Humphrey Bogart is a retro role model.