SAN FRANCISCO — A BILLBOARD image of a burning cigarette looms over one of the busiest freeways in San Francisco. Above it, the stark message is hard to ignore: ''The faces of the Tobacco Industry light up every time you do. The Tobacco Industry. They Profit. You Lose.'' The warning is the creation of California's landmark antitobacco campaign, which since 1989 has been credited with reducing smoking by almost a third throughout the state. Hailed as the model for other states, the program is funded by the Tobacco Tax Initiative, a voter-mandated 25-cent tax cigarette tax hike that nets the state $450 million a year. Experts also credit California's award-winning campaign for helping inspire the tough, new federal antismoking regulations and policies recently endorsed by President Clinton. But at the same time that Mr. Clinton is putting the tobacco industry on the defensive nationally, California's publicly funded antitobacco program is fighting for survival. Gov. Pete Wilson (R), faced with a tight budget and tough choices, is redirecting money to health care for poor residents rather than fully funding antismoking efforts - even though a lower court has ruled the move illegal. By law, one-quarter of the tobacco tax revenue collected is supposed to support antismoking publicity, research, and education. But California is not the only state scrambling for cash and dipping into tobacco-tax revenues. In Massachusetts, legislators have overridden the voters' mandate and stripped the antitobacco program's funding for other services. Arizona's one-year-old program is already fighting off attempts to reduce its budget. The pattern calls into question the viability of government antismoking campaigns - even as other states, such as Oregon, consider similar legislation. ''It's just infuriating,'' says Jack Nicholl, campaign director for Proposition 99, California's tobacco-tax initiative. ''In all three states that passed tobacco taxes, politicians have come in and ripped off the tobacco health education money. It's a systematic attack by politicians who see a big pot of cash and use it for what they want rather than what the voters want.'' Initiative sponsors have filed two lawsuits to stop legislators from diverting antitobacco program funds to indigent health care. On Sept. 1, they won a preliminary injunction against Governor Wilson, halting this year's attempt to take $64 million from the program. The sponsors won their first lawsuit against the state in 1994. Although the court ruled that the diversions are illegal, legislation must be passed to retool the antismoking campaign. ''In all the years I've worked here, I've never seen such depth of emotion on an issue,'' says John Miller, chief of staff to State Sen. Diane Watson (D), sponsor of the bill to reinstate funds for the antitobacco program. ''The lawsuit prevented the state from doing the wrong thing, but it can't make the state do the right thing,'' he says, adding that the measure will be difficult to pass. Wilson - whose presidential campaign is managed by Craig Fuller, a Philip Morris executive - isn't cowed by the court ruling. The assistant director of the California Department of Finance, H. D. Palmer, says ''We will continue to aggressively defend legislation at all levels of the court system, because the bill provides essential public health services to poor children and pregnant women that would otherwise be unavailable to them.'' The California Medical Association supports Wilsons moves. ''The CMA recognizes that this is not the ideal way to fund indigent health-care services; it's very inappropriate, very circuitous,'' says Jack Lewin, head of the CMA. ''I understand that tobacco education in the long run has a bigger payoff. But it's too disheartening for doctors to look at the faces of people who will not get medical care.'' Meanwhile, budget cuts have damaged the lauded antismoking campaign. Less money, staff layoffs, and a loss of momentum have left the program ''hanging by a thread,'' says Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at University of California at San Francisco. ''The genius of California's program was to take on the tobacco industry on its own terms and beat them with a combination of advertising and community-based programs,'' Mr. Glantz says. But tobacco-industry officials argue that state money is being misused by turning ''antismoking zealots into professional activists,'' says Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, an industry trade group in Washington. ''They're complaining now because they want to keep the gravy train rolling.'' The tobacco industry spends $1.6 million a day promoting tobacco use to California's 30 million residents, says Colleen Stevens, chief of the antismoking media campaign for the state Department of Health Services. To combat the industry's advertising, the program sponsors tobacco education through every local health department in California. Ms. Stevens says state figures show cigarette use is down by 28 percent throughout the state, nearly triple the national rate of decline. Cigarette sales have dropped 41 percent. In 1989, when the program started, only one California community had a restriction on smoking in a public place; as of last fall, 300 communities have smoking ordinances. Teen smoking here has remained stable while surveys show it has increased nationally. But such statistics may not tell the full story. ''There's a question hanging over the effectiveness of higher tobacco taxes and education programs doing anything but driving sales across borders,'' Mr. Lauria says. He notes cigarette sales soared in New Hampshire when Massachusetts passed a higher tobacco tax. California, he says, has lost $60 million in excise taxes to Mexico, where many people now shop for cigarettes.