Society is closing in on the cigarette smoker. There are warning labels on packages of cigarettes. Restaurants offer nonsmoking areas, and smoking is banned in many public places. A great dispute is in progress on the dangers of "passive" smoking -- inhaling the air into which surrounding smokers have exhaled.

But not everybody believes that cigarettes are "coffin-nails" and smoking them is to walk hand in hand with Death. Among them, naturally enough, is the tobacco industry, with a multi-billion-dollar investment in cigarettes. After all, cigarettes create jobs, and thus wages, which enlarge the gross national product and do much to improve the balance of trade (our taxes provide farm support credits for tobacco exports to the tune of $500 million per year). Government officials, and legislators, are also aware that cigarettes bring in about $6 billion in taxes.

So the tobacco industry, through its council and some manufacturers, offers -- in addition to competitive advertisements -- artistically designed low-key "information messages" to suggest that the evidence is not all in yet, that there may be other villainous products causing cancer of the lung, and that cigarettes, if not exactly harmless, are not really harmful.

Until now the burden of support for cigarette smoking was borne by the industry. Recently, magazine readers of the smaller, more liberal journals were exposed to full-page ads sponsored by the Tobacco Industry Labor/Management Committee. These are magazines that would ordinarily refuse cigarette advertisements, magazines that would be expected to be pro-union. The ad shows a photograph of members of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International Union, Local 304T, a working-class "rainbow": black, white, male and female. The reader is told, in a bold heading that, "We're the tobacco industry, too."

The message goes on to point out how socially minded and forward-looking the union is: "our brothers and sisters marched in Washington, honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., supported health care for the elderly . . . we care about all the things working people all over the country care about -- jobs, equality, social justice, economic democracy, peace."

The stinger is: "our industry is threatened by well-meaning people who haven't stopped to consider how their actions might affect others."

Jobs have been lost in other situations because of the unfeeling character of industrial management. We have seen mills closed because they had become unprofitable, throwing thousands out of work; unemployment among a variety of U.S. industries because the products could no longer compete in world markets. There is no national policy to protect the working man or woman against job loss in the event of government or management decision to close factories, or end production of, say, cigarettes. In such circumstances, is a union justified, in its role as protector of its membership, to put their welfare above that of the rest of society? Society has no care for them, should they altruistically choose to starve?

Cancer of the lung is now the primary killer of men who die from cancer, and this year is expected to top breast cancer as the primary killer of women who die from cancer. There is also suggestive evidence that cigarette smoking is principally involved in heart disease and a variety of lethal lung diseases. The union is asking us, in effect, to honor their job need by sacrificing our lives. Like some somber ancient ritual, our lives are to be offered up on the altar of gainful employment.

It is ironic that union officials would permit industry to use them in this way. Industry's shortsighted policy of focusing entirely on profitability is thus reinforced by an equally shortsighted, selfish if realistic, union policy. It should be underscored here, though, that the whole society in its legislative inertia in the face of the lethal facts of 300,000 deaths a year directly or indirectly caused by cigarette smoking, has the most to answer for.

It isn't necessary to go on a prohibitionist crusade to bar manufacture, sale or ownership of cigarettes. It would be enough to make growing tobacco less profitable, and offer incentives for farmers to grow other crops; to offer better paying jobs to workers now engaged in the production of cigarettes, and to make the cigarette industry less profitable with high manufacturing taxes as well as sales.