Sydney — When the quiet farming town of Lismore, in the Australian state of New South Wales, began its campaign against smoking several years ago, the omens were bad.
Public education had enjoyed negligible effectiveness on previous occasions.
This time, however, bureaucrats in Sydney, the state capital, decided on saturation. For three years the community was bombarded with advertising - some of it deliberately tasteless - and lectures at workplaces. There were bumper stickers for cars, banners across streets, posters, and telephone counselors to call. Truckloads of leaflets and ''quit kits,'' with practical advice on how to stay off tobacco, were shipped in.
Considering past experience, any of these methods alone would have failed, agreed officials in the New South Wales health commission. But saturating the public with the message - letting people know others were willing to help, and were trying to stop, too - met with resounding success.
The number of smokers in Lismore declined by 12 percent. After analyzing Lismore's experiment, New South Wales launched a state-wide ''quit for life'' campaign. The New South Wales health commission calls the program ''the largest of its type in the world.''
Advertising hasn't been pretty. But the shock approach is working - on television, radio, billboards and posters as well as in newspapers, magazines, and movie theaters. Tobacco companies have protested against some of the New South Wales advertisements, which they describe as unfair.
In a separate development, Western Australia is considering a ban on cigarette advertising and cigarette sponsorship of sports events. The tobacco industry believes that, if such a law is passed, other Australian states will swiftly follow suit.
Consequently, a national advertising campaign has begun with the support of the tobacco industry and of publishers. The campaign suggests that if a product's use is legal, there should be no bar to advertising it, and contends that laws to outlaw tobacco advertising could be the forerunner of other legislation placing limitations on personal freedom.
Declares M. J. Waterson, research director of the Australian Advertising Association: ''An overwhelming weight of evidence indicates that advertising is not a significant influence on the decision to smoke by young people.'' The tobacco industry maintains advertising has to do with winning different shares of an existing market and doesn't encourage non-smokers to start the habit.
This argument cuts no ice with a movement called Billboard Utilizing Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions. The underground group specializes in defacing cigarette advertising billboards. Doctors and other professionals have been among members of the group who have faced charges of damage to property.
According to the advertising industry, damage to billboards - which regularly need replacement - runs as high as $500,000 a year. The group is said to have no equivalent in other countries. Vandalism is common elsewhere but advertisers have heard of no other campaign so well-orchestrated. In Sydney, for example, most prominantly placed billboards advertising cigarettes are regularly defaced, replaced - and defaced again.