Why don't we give alcohol the same health propaganda and opprobrium that's produced a remarkable decline in tobacco consumption among American people?

Since the anti-tobacco mood has developed so gradually, few of us now notice it. But foreign visitors often remark that, relative to their homelands, smoking has sharply decreased here. And the official numbers support that observation, showing, for example, that among men of ages 25 to 34, smokers declined from 60 percent to 40 percent over the past 15 years.

The drop, dating from the 1964 Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health, is the direct consequence of an often-fumbling, underfinanced and politically opposed effort to get the public to wise up to the toxic effects of smoking. But despite its limitations, it has worked to a substantial extent, and therefore stands out as a landmark in the much-talked-about but otherwise little-acted-on design for government to serve as a guide for do-it-yourself health care.

For all the health wreckage that has been reliably traced to tobacco, the weed is mild stuff compared with alcohol, whose devastation ranges from the killing and serious injury of innocent scores of thousands on the highways to the commonplace self-destructing of careers and family relations.

The main barrier to giving alcohol the tobacco treatment is that anti-alcohol still has a bad name from our brief and disastrous experiences with Prohibition, which foolishly defined drinking as a police problem. Recuperating from that constitutional mishap, we've envolved to the usual next stage of hope by defining alcohol as a research problem and ensconcing it in its own government-financed research institute, replete with grants, professional journals, a conference circuit and all the other organizational paraphernalia of modern-day scholarship.

The potential of this research enterprise ought not to be scoffed at, because, compared with the national booze bill, it's cheap and promising. But as the effectiveness of the anti-tobacco campign clearly shows, it's not necessary to know everything before you can do something. The public today is highly receptive to reliable information about how to live longer and in good health. And this strongly suggests that it's time for an across-the-board propaganda barrage against alcohol.

The intention, of course, is not be ban it, for the obvious reason -- as we've seen with marijuana and other "soft" drugs -- thats it's hopeless to try to impose police control on consumables of mass interest. Rather, the object should be to energize the good sense of the American people and encourage them to protect themselves and each other by remaking the image of drinking -- just as has been done with smoking.

It is politically and medically scandalous, for example, that cigarette packages bear a health warning from the surgeon general -- as they should -- while alcohol packages don't. Similarly, cigarette advertising is barred from television, while alcohol consumption is permitted to be cleverly depicted in TV ads as integral to good fellowship and joyous events. c

To the extent that the alcohol industry is under public attack for what it's selling, it responds with odes to moderation. But these are actually relatively infrequent, since the plague of alcoholism is widely accepted as a given of modern life.

Having recognized that alcohol is invulnerable to police work, we've designated it a medical problem and wait hopefully and patiently while scientists and doctors work on it. In the long run, they're likely to be fruitful sources of prevention and treatment. But in the meantime, the propaganda weapon -- demonstrably effective -- is at hand. Why not use it?