Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello yesterday leveled a withering attack against tobacco companies that aim advertising at young women.

"It is time that the self-serving, death-dealing tobacco industry and their soldiers of fortune, advertising agencies, stop blowing smoke in the face of America's women and children," she said.

The companies' glamorized cigarette ads -- many of them aimed at young women -- help to cause infant deaths and higher female adult death rates, Novello said.

Smoking by pregnant women causes 4,000 babies to be born dead each year, and 126,000 women die each year from smoking-related disorders, she said. Lung cancer now kills more women than any other form of cancer, she said. For years, lung cancer has been the leading cause of cancer deaths among men.

"Call it a case of the Virginia Slims woman catching up with the Marlboro Man," Novello said.

More than 50 million Americans smoke, approximately half of them women.

Tobacco industry officials said Novello is wrong to try to keep any kind of cigarette advertising away from women.

"We believe that women are capable of making their own decisions," said Maura Payne, manager of public relations for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Brennan Dawson, spokeswoman for the Tobacco Institute, a trade group, called Novello "maternalistic" and said she "should not be setting women apart as a class that needs to be protected."

Novello was joined by representatives of anti-smoking and physicians' groups in denouncing cigarette advertisements aimed at women.

Virginia Ernster, a member of the board of directors of the Women vs. Smoking Network, said, "Young women of relatively low educational status are precisely the group about whom health professionals have the greatest concern when it comes to smoking."

Ezra Davidson Jr., president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said he had written to major tobacco companies and asked them not to target women in their advertising. Only one company, which he would not identify, wrote back to tell him that its advertisements were trying to get women to change brands, not to entice them to start.