Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello yesterday joined other leading health advocates in calling for major changes in the sale and promotion of Cisco, a fruit-flavored wine popular among young drinkers and known informally as "liquid crack."

Cisco resembles lower-alcohol wine coolers in its colors and flavors, and in the shape and labeling of its bottles. But a 12-ounce Cisco is actually a high-alcohol drink as potent as five shots of 80- to 100-proof vodka. It has been implicated in cases of alcohol poisoning among teenagers.

"The manufacturer has packaged {Cisco} to appear as a refreshing cool drink with a seemingly low alcohol content," Novello said. "Yet if a 100-pound person were to consume two bottles of Cisco in one hour, they could die of acute alcohol poisoning. . . . There have been reports of significant behavior changes following consumption of Cisco, including hallucinations, disorientation, loss of motor control and loss of consciousness."

Two teenagers recently convicted of throwing rocks at Capital Beltway motorists told police they were drinking Cisco on the night of the incident. The attack near the Livingstone Road underpass in Prince George's County injured more than two dozen people, including a teenage girl who suffered permanent brain damage.

"Cisco is the drink of choice for young people today," said Maryland state Detective Sgt. Vernon Herron, who investigated the rock-throwing incident. "It's spreading throughout the community. . . . I think {teenagers} want it for the kick. But I don't think they realize that it is as fortified as it is."

Officials of the Canandaigua Wine Co. in New York, which has sold Cisco since 1988, expressed concern that their company is being unjustly singled out for criticism.

"The real issue here isn't Cisco, it's underage drinking," said Marvin Sands, company chairman.

Sands said the company has taken several steps to answer complaints about its product. At a news conference yesterday, Sands said that since September his firm has: put labels on Cisco bottles stating, "This is not a wine cooler"; enlarged the print on the label identifying Cisco's alcohol content as 20 percent; encouraged retailers to move Cisco away from less potent wine coolers on store shelves; and removed the company's in-store advertising, which stated that Cisco "takes you by surprise."

Cisco contains five times the amount of alcohol typically found in a bottle of wine cooler, a 12-ounce can of beer or a glass of table wine.

Novello said the changes are too subtle to eliminate the strong similarity in appearance between Cisco and conventional wine coolers, and urged the company to change the shape and color of the bottle to make it look more like the fortified wines with which it competes.

A meeting between company officials and Novello has been scheduled. She said she also has met with officials of the Federal Trade Commission and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to discuss possible regulatory action.

The controversy over Cisco erupted in July, when the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence learned of complaints about the wine and began a public campaign to persuade retailers to stop selling the product and the company to withdraw it.

In response to the pressure, Southland Corp. announced Tuesday that it will remove Cisco from its company-owned 7-Eleven convenience stores. It said 7-Eleven franchise owners, who operate about half of the stores nationwide, will be strongly urged to drop the product.

Complaints about Cisco also had prompted a study by physicians at the Children's National Medical Center here. In results presented yesterday, Joseph Wright of the hospital staff said 10 of the 15 adolescents admitted to the center's emergency room since last March with acute alcohol poisoning said they had been drinking Cisco.

The 10 teenagers averaged 15 years in age. Eight were young women. Half were almost comatose upon arrival at the hospital. Three who were admitted for further treatment had consumed an average of only 18 ounces of Cisco.

"They thought they were drinking a wine cooler. They guzzled it," said Wright. "My fear is that our experience with children {and Cisco} is just the tip of the iceberg."