Courage or cash? That's the question the American Public Health Association is putting to university officials nationwide this week as it kicks off a campaign to discourage investment in tobacco company stocks.

Saying the campaign is "based on the moral contradiction of making a profit by killing people," organizers hope to put pressure on medical schools and schools of public health in particular. The University of Utah should be high on their list.A school that prides itself on having one of the best cancer research and treatment centers in the country can't justify - even in the tightest of budgetary times - reaping profits from investing in the very products that cause cancer. Yet that's exactly what is happening.

While several other American universities have divested themselves of such stocks, the U. continues to reap an average return of 37 percent annually from tobacco stocks in its portfolio.

Frankly, as long as there's no hue and cry from the public, this turncoat approach to doing the "public's business" may well continue. With state education budgets stretched to the limit, it must be hard to look askance at that kind of return.

And at least one tobacco company has made it harder still to break the money chain. R.J. Reynolds recently awarded one assistant professor at the U. a $25,000 grant to study - of all subjects - pulmonary research.

Are such funding measures acceptable because they aren't well-publicized? Certainly they can't be justified on moral or philosophical grounds.

Dr. John H. Holbrook, an internal medicine specialist at the U., has compared cigarette smoking to "literally putting a needle in your vein and injecting a mixture of substances. . . into your blood more than 70,000 times a year."

He terms tobacco companies "morally bankrupt" because they have a product that is known to be harmful and addicting, yet they continue to produce it "because of the huge profits involved. I find that incredible."

Equally incredible is the fact that a highly respected cancer research university profits from one of cancer's biggest - and most easily avoidable - causes. U. officials should cure their institution's flawed allegiance by divesting without waiting for public pressure to force their hand.