A few days ago, I saw a picture of a woman in lavender leotards. She was supposed to be a dancer or someone doing exercises, and she was sort of bent over backwards -- very graceful, very supple. She was in terrific shape. She was posing for a cigarette ad.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out the message of this ad, or, for that matter, the one for Camels where the guy hangs off a mountain, a cigarette dangling from his lips. By showing the healthiest-looking people in the world smoking, the industry is attempting to counter both the message on the pack and a universal scientific fact: cigarettes are "dangerous to your health." In fact, the people shown are better than healthy. They are virtually athletes.

After seeing that cigarette ad, I went into the office. I did my settg- up exercises (made coffee), then went over to a machine that was printing out questions to a poll. The poll had to do with business ethics, and it asked about E.F. Hutton, which admitted to defrauding some 400 banks by writing checks for money it did not yet have. Because I had just seen that cigarette ad, I had a different question: How come no one questions the ethics of selling cigarettes?

Think about if for a second. There are admen on Madison Avenue, well- paid types with Ralph Lauren suits and BMWs garaged in Darien, whose job it is to somehow convince Americans that's it's okay to smoke. They devise ad campaigns to make the impressionable think that smoking and good health can go together, that you can be a ballerina or a mountain climber and still puff up a storm. They make smoking synonymous with sophistication, with romance, with sex, neglecting to say that if the earth moves, it will be because of a coughing fit.

Think about it some more. These people, the cigarette companies and the ad agencies, place ads in magazines that appeal to young people, especially young women. They do this knowing that smoking is not just marginally bad for your health, like cheeses that are high in cholesterol, but can kill you. Is there anyone left who does not believe that? Is there anyone who is not convinced that smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease, plus a host of lesser ailments -- everything from increased susceptibility to colds to maybe even infertility?

Of course, you can buy the argument that the cigarette companies and the ad agencies are all fighting for the loyalty of existing smokers. And to an extent they are. But the fact remains that they all portray smoking in such a way as to appeal to kids. What kid doesn't want to hang from mountains in swell, tight-fitting pants? What kid doesn't want to have the bounce and suppleness of a ballerina? Who doesn't want to sit in a knock-out outfit of basic black, waiting in a cocktail lounge for a man who's not only handsome but -- even better -- a smoker? And even when it comes to existing smokers, the ads certainly don't encourage them to quit, do they?

I'm a former smoker. I've quit twice, and both times it was hard as hell. Each time before I quit, right when I was thinking it over, I would look at the those ads and they would tell me it was all right to smoke. They would say, "See, Cohen, we smoke, and it's terrific." You can call me a fool, but I was just a smoker looking for any excuse to continue. I'll take a dollar for everyone out there like that.

There's something crazy about a country that thinks it's in an ethical crisis because a brokerage firm did to a bank what the banks do to us all the time, and yet doesn't give a thought to the selling and advertising of cigarettes. There is something profoundly mixed up about a nation that summons the ethicists to worry about E.F. Hutton and doesn't pay any attention to people who earn big bucks to devise ways both to get people to smoke and then keep them smoking. You may wonder what these people think of themselves at the end of the day. They have, after all, pushed selling-out to new heights.

E.F. Hutton certainly should not be let off the hook. But if business ethics is to be our concern for the next 15 minutes, then a little perspective is in order. What E.F. Hutton did to some banks is nothing compared to what cigarettes do to people. After all, a kited check never killed a bank. You can hardly say the same about cigarettes and people.