An advertisement mailed to physicians has angered a consumer group and the head of the Federal Aviation Administration by showing a harried air traffic controller as a good candidate for a prescription anti-anxiety drug.

The Public Citizen Health Research group sent a letter yesterday to the Food and Drug Administration, asking Commissioner Frank Young to force the drug's manufacturer to retract the promotion, which it says implies air traffic controllers should relieve stress with prescription drugs.

The ad has also provoked FAA Administrator T. Allan McArtor, who said "The FAA considers the ad an affront. It does a disservice to the professional men and women of the FAA who work in the air traffic control system."

The advertisement, mailed to more than 100,000 physicians, shows a worried air traffic controller staring anxiously at a video screen. Behind him is an airport runway with four taxiing planes.

"He needs anxiolytic therapy . . . but alertness is part of his job," the ad says on the first page. Anxiolytic therapy is treatment of anxiety.

On the second page the ad recommends BuSpar, an anti-anxiety drug made by Mead Johnson Pharmaceuticals, a division of Bristol-Myers U.S. Pharmaceutical and Nutritional Group of Evansville, Ind., and shows the controller, now happy and relaxed, strolling off the page.

"Outrageous. It's appalling that they picked air traffic controllers to target in an ad for tranquilizers," said Dr. Marcel Salive, a researcher for the Public Citizen Health Research Group.

In the letter to Young, Salive and the group's director, Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, asked that Young require the company to mail a retraction to doctors who received copies of the ad, which the group contends encourages physicians to prescribe the drug to "worried public safety workers."

They said understaffing of control towers has increased air traffic controllers' stress. "However, the overall theme of the Mead Johnson advertisement -- that air traffic controllers can and indeed should be treated with a tranquilizer to solve this serious workplace problem -- is misleading and must be stopped."

A spokesman for the FAA, Fred Farrar, said that because the job of an air traffic controller requires constant alertness, federal rules prohibit use of tranquilizers of any kind.

Bristol-Myers' spokesman, Scott Litherland, said, however, that the consumer group misinterpreted the ad. He said the ad is not suggesting that people with everyday stress should start taking drugs but rather is intended to show doctors examples of patients with chronic anxiety who would be better off taking BuSpar than tranquilizers -- like Valium -- that work by depressing the central nervous system, relaxing muscles and reflexes.

An FDA spokesman said Young has not reviewed the letter and had no comment.