Inspired by the massive fund-raising efforts of such organizations as the National Federation for Decency, censorship vigilantes are on the warpath across America, and adult magazines are among their targets. Their efforts to put pressure on television networks and magazine retailers show no signs of abating. Recently in the Washington area, Peoples Drugs, High's Dairy Stores and Dart Drug announced plans to discontinue the sale of these magazines.

But let's draw some distinctions here before this moral crusade gets out of hand. Think of the magazines on the hit lists. Most reasonable observers would argue that there is a difference between Playboy and other adult titles that Peoples Drugs has decided to stop selling in its 800-plus retail outlets.

No Playboy cover in the last decade has featured a nude, and the magazine's photo pages never step beyond current standards of acceptable taste.

Unlike most so-called "sophisticate" titles, Playboy features top-quality fiction and essays by the nation's finest authors and journalists. In fact, the prestigious National Magazine Award for fiction, administered by Columbia University, was awarded to Playboy just last year.

The magazine's contributors have included George McGovern, former senators Philip Hart and Vance Hartke, Garry Wills and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The Playboy interview has given readers insights into such personalities as Jimmy Carter, Malcolm Forbes, Ed Koch and Walter Cronkite.

Playboy's 15 million readers (an estimated 20 percent of them are women) are respectable, responsible citizens who, we are certain, would take exception to and possibly be offended by the suggestion that reading Playboy reflects poorly on their moral behavior or their sense of decency.

Playboy also protests the guilt by association that causes it to be removed from retail store magazine racks along with the sleaziest of our would-be imitators, even though we also defend their right to be protected by the First Amendment. We consider these titles, not Playboy, to be the actual lightning rods for most complaints.

It is true that few, if any, of the magazines being removed from Peoples Drugs and other stores have ever been judged obscene by a court of law. It is also true that all of them probably are more sexually explicit than Playboy. Had People's Drugs judged each magazine on its individual merits, it may well have adopted a "Playboy-only" policy, in which case we are certain that customer complaints would have disappeared.

We seriously doubt that very many customers stayed away from Peoples Drugs because of its sale of adult magazines. But we do know that the thousands of readers who purchased their monthly copies of Playboy at Peoples Drugs will continue to buy them -- from other retailers.

Playboy understands that retailers' decision to remove adult magazines from their stores was not based on the merits of our magazine. The chain was forced into its action because of the pressure applied by such groups as Richard Enrico's Citizens Against Pornography in Northern Virginia. These groups tell retailers, "If you need to see bags of protest mail, you've got it." The chain is then plugged into the mailing list machinery and the pre-printed cards and letters of protest arrive, as promised. Whether they come from Peoples Drugs customers or not, the effect is the same.

It is all too easy to debunk the methods and motivations of these moralistic blackmailers who seek to blame all of society's complex ills on certain movies, television shows, rock music and magazines. Most Americans don't subscribe to such simple-minded solutions and would never endorse such a myopic viewpoint.

If these tactics are allowed to take hold, eventually everyone will find himself confronted with a situation where someone is trying to limit his personal freedom of choice in one regard or another.

Magazines and rock records are under the gun today; books, television and movies and perhaps political and religious convictions could be held hostage tomorrow. Where does it all end?

-- Richard E. Smith is a senior vice president and circulation director of Playboy magazine.