The $17 billion tobacco industry yesterday attacked the escalated federal war on smoking as a personal "publicity stunt" staged by Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. and said Califano displayed "all the zeal" of a three-pack-a-day smoker turned "reformed sinner."

The attack by officials of the industry-backed Tobacco Institute came just 24 hours before the scheduled release of the surgeon general's latest smoking report.

They said the report, an annual document, will be "more rehash than research," and predicted that Califano would attempt to overshadow his subordinate, Surgeon General Julius Richmond, in its presentation.

The institute officials quoted an HEW memo describing a Califano-Richmond press conference scheduled for today as "a media event" to be used to spread the anti-smoking word.

At the same time, the institute officials admitted that cigarette consumption may be down. Latest Agriculture Department figures show per captia use of cigarettes has dropped nearly 10 percent since 1963.

In 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry formally found that "cigarette smoking is a health hazard." This pronouncement opened a barrage of medical and federal publicity that has turned millions of adults away from cigarettes, though teen-age smoking has remained high and teen-age girls' smoking has greatly increased.

Plainly reflecting industry concern over the anti-smoking trend, Tobacco Institute Vice President Bill Dwyer said, "We rather resent attempts to guess us out of business."

Still, tobacco spokesmen were not as adamant yesterday as they were in the 1960s in denying the validity of Terry's report.

"We have no argument" with the government's advising Americans "fully and accurately" of "the suspicions surrounding cigarettes," said Marvin Kastenbaum, an institute statistician.

"It is appropriate to put the public on notice of an alleged hazard," said Dwyer.

Institute officials insisted there are still only suspicions and "statistical associations" linking smoking with cancer, emphysema and heart trouble. They said the whole subject remains one of "controversy," and that "many" scientists think nothing has been proved.

The institute distributed some scientists' opinions and research conclusins to support its assertions.

Nonetheless, there are few subjects on which doctors and scientists find themselves in almost unanimous agreement as on smoking's role. Most of them believe that smoking -- particularly cigarette smoking -- causes diseases.

Horace Kornegay, Tobacco Institute president, said that HEW's "preoccupation with smoking" may be "dangerous" because it "diverts attention from other suspected hazards." The institute cited figures showing that in San Mateo County, Calif., 34 percent of students aged 9 to 12 smoked cigrettes in 1977, compared with 35 percent in 1968. However, 36 percent of the same age group used marijuana, compared with 18 percent in 1968.

Kornegay and associates said they want "fair" discussion, and insisted that HEW under Califano uses "propaganda barrages," "self-righteous zeal" and "Cabinet-level fiat" as weapons rather than pursuing responsible investigation.

Califano aides said he will answer the charges today. He has already said today's report will contain "more" new information than usual.