FRANKLY WE DON'T SEE WHAT THE BIG FUSS IS about vis-a vis Mr. Califano, smoking, health and HEW. Despite some characteristically flamboyant and overstated rhetorical flourishes, Mr. Califano was enunciating what seemed to us a modest and sensible enough program. HEW will seek to step up its anti-smoking propaganda; it will stiffen the nonsmoking provisions affecting building space over which it has control; it will seek to tighten up federal regulations and labeling and warning procedures with a view to protecting individuals who smoke and those who don't from various demonstrable hazards of smoke-filled rooms and/or lungs; it will undertake to learn more about the causes of addictive smoking; and it will explore some financial incentives (in the tax and insurance realms, for example) that might encourage people to eschew or kick the habit.

Some critics (who cannot be dismissed, in Mr. Califano's term, as "self-interested" spokesmen for the tobacco industry) have expressed anxiety that the federal government will, in this campaign, once again be overreaching its authority and busybodying people's lives. That anxiety is not exactly without a foundation in experience and logic, since the federal government, especially in its HEW incarnation, has shown a definite taste for telling everyone what he can or can't or must or mustn't do at each hour of the day. And Mr. Carter's sweeping assertion at his press conference last week that Mr. Califano, who is merely the government's chief health officer, is in fact "responsible for the nation's health," didn't help: It made it all sound a lot grander and more comprehensive and intrusive than it is.

The point is that, as the government's chief health officer, Mr. Califano surely has taken some steps to fulfill his obligation. The program he has laid out concentrates on diverting the nation's children from taking up the smoking habit and getting others out of harm's way so far as smoking is concerned. It is a self-interested gambit for the producers and consumers of tobacco products to dismiss the enormous body of medical research pointing to the terrible effect of smoking on health. At the other pole of the argument, it strikes us as foolish to bewail the fact that the Secretary of HEW did not take on the addictive political and economic aspects of tobacco growing and marketing in this country. If anyone ever takes on those problems frontally it will have to be Congress or the President, and we did not get the impression from Mr. Carter the other day that he was itching for a leadership role in this crusade.

Speaking from our own smoke-filled experience, we would add one cautionary note. It will be madness if the airlines regulators seek to ban smoking altogether on flights of any considerable distance. That way lies cheating, hiding, secret smokes in the lavatories, extinguishing cigarettes in the upholstery -- and, in general, fire and danger. We would recommend either some form of the present ghetto system or, possibly, all-smokers flights. The trouble with the latter, of course, is that you wouldn't be able to see the movie screen for the smoke.