LAST OCTOBER, two economists hired by the United Nations' World Health Organization concluded after 14 months of study that more people all over the world are drinking more alcohol because of the advertising and marketing methods of a handful of international companies.

In 1981, the study reported, the global liquor industry spent some $2 billion to advertise beer, wine and spirits.

The campaign reached out to potential new groups of drinkers -- women and young people, for example.

"Women are a big, untapped market for whiskey," said one U.S. advertising executive cited by the study. "We felt there was a potential, especially with upscale working women, and particularly with working women who make their own brand decisions."

Industrial countries, which are by far the largest consumers of brand- name alcohol products, were the main target of the advertising. But Big Alcohol has increasingly been focusing on the Third World.

Developing nations increased their imports of alcohol from $325 million a year in 1970-72 to $1.3 billion in 1980.

In Zambia, the alcoholic beverages consumed by people each year went from an average of 42 liters (about 11 gallons) in 1961 to 150 liters (40 gallons) in 1976. The report done for WHO said the increase was due in large part to the growth of beer-making capacity facilitated by contracts with Western breweries.

Whole populations have begun to change their drinking habits, switching from local drinks rooted in their tradition and culture to brands of spirits, wine and beer sold in the West. The Japanese, for example, are drinking less sake and more imported whiskey than they were a decade ago.

These nuggets of information are contained in "Alcoholic Beverages: Dimensions of Corporate Power," authored by Frederick F. Clairmonte and John Cavanagh, an America. Thus far, WHO has not published or disseminated the study because of an internal dispute over whether a health organization should examine issues relating primarily to business and economics.

Nevertheless, the growing evidence of a link between alcohol abuse and health and social problems inevitably focuses attention on the role of the global alcohol business. If the report's findings are valid, "then the challenge to the international community is tangible: in the cause of health interests some type of international regulation of the liquor trade must become a matter for urgent consideration. The world's health cannot, the argument goes, safely be left to the mercies of an unfettered pursuit of profit." So wrote Dr. Griffith Edwards, a London psychiatrist and editor of the British Journal of Addition, in a preface to the U.N. consultants' study.

Nobody disputes the right of companies to earn profits from selling their wares. The question is whether governments and international organizations have a responsibility to intervene when corporate activities demonstrably affect health and exacerbate social problems that taxpayers ultimately have to pay for.

According to the authors of "Alcoholic Beverages: Dimensions of Corporate Power," "The problems generated by alcohol consumption cannot be grasped without far-reaching analysis of this roughly $170 billion alcohol market."

One issue dealt with in the study is advertising.

"Brand proliferation" is one method used by companies to reach out to new consumers of alcohol. A leader in brand proliferation is Seagram, the world's largest liquor company. It sells "about 150 distilled spirits brands and 300 brands of wine, champagne, port and sherry in over 175 countries," according to the report. In 1980 it introduced a new liquer in Britain with this promotional line: "Crocodillo is the first completely new drink to be developed out of consumer research specifically for young women during the last decade."

To take income differences into account, the report said, Heublein (owned by R.J. Reynolds) marketed "basically the same quality vodka in both a popular and low-priced brand (Popov) and higher-priced premium brand (Smirnoff). For each of six different types of Scotch whiskey exported to different markets, the price varied up to 247 percent. In four of the categories, the report went on, the highest-priced brands were destined for Namibia, Paraguay and South Korea.

The study also questions the sincerity of multinationals that urge drinking in moderation while they deploy a "dazzling array of specific promotional techniques," such as free samples. "The multibillion-dollar advertising outlays are anathema to the notion of moderate drinking," the study said.

Another concern cited in the report is the inroads made by the companies in the Third World.

There is nothing new about alcohol in the culture of Third World populations. Alcohol has been part of culture and tradition for 7,000 years -- ever since people began to discover that moist fruit or vegetables left in the sun for several hours would ferment into intoxicating beverages. Alcohol became part of ritual and ceremony in villages and towns. While there have probably always been "problem drinkers," the problems were contained in communities and families.

But the migration of hundreds of millions of people away from their rural homes into the sprawling slums and shantytowns of Manila, Lagos, Lima and other cities has changed old habits. As traditional family and community values break down, many turn to alcohol for escape. Into this volatile situation has come Big Alcohol, advertising its wares and making deals to produce them at new local facilities.

As the major alcohol companies saturated markets in developed nations, they began cultivating markets in the Third World. Since 1955, for example, Heineken has set up 36 breweries outside of its home base, the Netherlands. Twenty-five of them have been in developing countries. Until the late 1960s, Nigerians drank mostly local brew. But the following decade brought a large expansion of Western breweries in the country, as a result of joint ventures and licensing agreements. By 1985, Guinness is expected to have five or six large modern breweries in Nigeria, and will produce as much beer in Nigeria as in Ireland.

Profits are, naturally, one reason for this trend. By 1981, Guinness' markets in Africa and Asia accounted for only 15 percent of its sales but for 36 percent of its profits.

The fact that alcohol consumption in a country is rising, of course, does not in itself mean that the population is drinking too much. But consumption levels, earlier studies have found, tend to correlate with a growth in the number of "problem drinkers." Medical research has long linked national levels of alcohol consumption with health. French per capita consumption is the second highest in the world. France also has the highest per capita rate of cirrhosis of the liver. In the view of the authors of the U.N. consultants' report, the structure of the big companies makes increases in alcohol consumption all but inevitable. This is because control of breweries, wineries and distilleries has shifted to fewer and fewer international companies with large advertising and promotion budgets.

Unlike small breweries, wineries and distilleries, an international conglomerate can use profits in one part of its business to subsidize, or promote, some new product. Unlike single-line enterprises, multinationals can also treat alcohol as merely one more commodity that shares "extensive international networks" for distribution of other consumer products.

This is significant in light of the increasing ties between tobacco and alcohol marketing. Four of the multinationals that dominate world cigarette markets have moved aggressively into alcohol: Philip Morris (Miller Brewing); R. J. Reynolds (Heublein); Britain's Imperial Group (Courage beer); and South Africa's Rembrandt/Rothmans (wine interests). By applying cigarette marketing methods, the report said, these firms have made a great impact on the alcohol business.

This is only one part of the story of increased concentration. In 1980, for example, 27 multinationals were in the alcohol business, each with sales of more than $1 billion. In beer, concentration of ownership -- which is much greater than in wine or liquor -- was propelled by new large-scale production methods and advertising and promotion. Between 1960 and 1980, the report said, brewing companies in Sweden declined from 57 to nine; in the United States from 171 to 43, and in Britain from 247 to 81. In every developed country except West Germany, five or fewer firms control at least half of beer output.

As to wine, by the end of the 1970s nearly half of all sales were made by units of five of the largest liquor corporations. In liquor as in beer, "Many of the giants are vertically integrated from raw material processing through distillation, brand ownership and marketing," the report found.

That all this is a matter of proper concern for the U.N.'s health agency was self-evident to WHO's own panel of some 20 expert advisers on alcohol problems.

Last October, the panel agreed that the structure of the multinational companies that produce, market and distribute alcohol has "implications for public health." That, however, apparently is not the conclusion of WHO. So far, it has not issued the report widely, and plans to publish it as a book, with the Edwards preface, have been shelved. The report is available to the public, according to WHO spokesman Gino Levi. All it takes to see it is a trip to WHO headquarters in Geneva. There, according to Levi, "it is readily available for review in my office."