WASHINGTON — FOR the past six years, the major anti-tobacco organizations have sponsored polls to see how Americans feel about smoking. Through the years the polls, followed closely by Congress and local officials, show a growing number of people feel cigarette smoking should not be done in public places. So it came somewhat as a surprise earlier this month when the Tobacco Institute trumpeted in full-page ads in 18 newspapers that a national poll had found ``a majority of American adults do not support more restrictive or tougher antismoking measures.''
In its ad, the institute, a public relations and lobbying organization, says a majority of Americans do not support an increase in cigarette taxes, smoking bans, or a prohibition on cigarette advertising.
The poll was dismissed by United States Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who said, ``It's at odds with other national polls.''
As it turns out, the Tobacco Institute survey of 1,500 adults is not really that different, especially when the actual results are presented.
For example, the Tobacco Institute ad says that a majority of Americans do not support an increase in cigarette taxes. The institute's actual poll showed, however, that 44 percent felt cigarette taxes should signifcantly be increased, 38 percent felt they should be left as they are now, 15 percent felt they should be significantly reduced, and 3 percent did not know.
Only by combining the 38 percent who felt current taxes were high enough with those who wanted a decrease in taxes does the institute come up with a majority who don't want new taxes. But it would also be fair to say that the plurality of people polled want cigarette taxes increased, admits Greg Schneiders, the pollster hired by the Tobacco Institute.
The plurality vote fits with other polls. Increased taxes on cigarettes are the most popular option ``in the context of deficit reduction,'' says Diane Colasanto, an official at the Gallup Organization, which has done work for antismoking groups.
The Tobacco Institute ad also said that a majority of Americans do not support smoking bans. The actual institute survey on smoking in restaurants showed that 74 percent favored the current policy on smoking and nonsmoking areas, 24 percent favored a total ban, and 2 percent wanted no restrictions on smoking.
Mr. Schneiders agrees ``that based on this survey smokers and nonsmokers opt for a policy of restrictions.'' But Brennan Dawson, an institute spokeswoman, sees no reason to use the word ``restrictions.''
Once again, separate smoking and nonsmoking areas meshes with prior polls. A 1986 poll sponsored by a coalition of antismoking groups found that 94 percent felt public spaces should have separate smoking and nonsmoking areas and 84 percent felt employers should be allowed to limit smoking on the job.
Finally, the Tobacco Institute ad said that a ban on cigarette advertising is not supported by the majority of Americans. The institute survey showed that 41 percent favored a total ban on advertising, 34 percent favored just a ban on TV and radio, 23 percent felt cigarette advertising should be permitted anywhere, and 2 percent didn't know.
These results were not much different from a poll by the American Medical Association that found 55 percent of Americans favored a ban on all tobacco ads.
THE results of the Tobacco Institute survey are not surprising to pollsters. Two questions that were included in the poll are matters of choice. ``Should the American people be given the freedom to choose? Give us that chance and we will pick it every time,'' says Everett Ladd, of the University of Connecticut's Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.
Schneiders, a former Carter administration official, defends the survey. ``I think the poll shows what a lot of people don't want to believe ... while a lot of people don't like smoking, the majority don't support further government steps to restrict smoking.''
But Fran Du Melle, an official at the American Lung Association, says that polls are not the only way to measure the shift in public opinion. ``There has been an enormous increase in city, county, and state indoor clean-air legislation that reflects the very basic level of concern in the public,'' she says.
Those efforts are likely to continue as medical evidence mounts against smoking. For example, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study last week that provides the first direct evidence linking cigarettes and heart disease. This follows the surgeon general's report two weeks ago, which says smoking now causes 390,000 deaths annually.