THE FEDERAL suit filed Wednesday against the tobacco industry offers a rare opportunity for a national accounting of the damage that the industry has done to the nation's health. Unlike the previous private class actions and suits by the states, a suit by the federal government treats the problem of the multi-decade scheme by the companies to misrepresent the addictive qualities of nicotine and the adverse health consequences of smoking as a national one in which all Americans have an interest. It would be nice, of course, if this public health problem could be dealt with another way. But the industry has resisted the administration's proposals for common-sense regulation of tobacco, and it scuttled the legislative initiative as well. At this point, a lawsuit is the administration's best leverage against the heavy public cost of smoking.

This is not to accuse the government, as the industry is doing, of filing purely political litigation. If the suit has legal merit, the fact that it may also be a powerful tool in support of administration policy objectives makes no difference. And merit is of course the issue; the government's action faces some formidable legal obstacles that could make it short-lived.

The industry has seized upon the supposed absence of a federal cause of action to argue that the suit is just a nefarious political stunt. The truth is, however, that whether the law permits this suit is a question to which we can only learn the answer if the government proceeds with it. If the department's reading of the law is wrong, it will emerge with egg on its face soon enough. Before the federal government decides, however, to take no action in the face of the clear public harm this industry continues wittingly to do, it is well worth finding out precisely what sorts of recovery the law does permit.

It is also wrong for Congress to use the appropriations process to interfere with the suit. The administration has asked for $20 million to fund the litigation. Given the magnitude of the possible damages, this is a relatively small sum. Congress should not put itself in the position of denying a potentially massive recovery for the taxpayer by nickel-and-diming the Justice Department on a major piece of litigation.