The $55 billion U.S. cigarette industry, facing a serious threat from a proliferation of city, county and state anti-smoking laws, is fighting back with a richly financed nationwide campaign to organize opposition to the legislation.

The cigarette companies' aggressive use of economic clout to defeat legislation even in small cities is more widespread and intense than ever before, people friendly and hostile to the industry say.The industry's efforts range from large statewide media campaigns - $20 million was spent in California this fall in a failed attempt to defeat a 25-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax - to flying Washington lobbyists into small towns to help defeat anti-smoking ordinances, as happened in September in St. Charles, Mo.

"The cigarette companies have mounted guerrilla warfare against every city council, every mayor, every county commission that's trying to provide a smoke-free place for people in public places," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., a frequent critic of the tobacco industry and the secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter administration.

Industry spokesmen say they win their battles against anti-smoking laws 90 percent of the time at the state level and around 75 percent of the time at the local level.

What is more, the lobbying campaign comes at a time of concern among health agencies, anti-smoking groups and some members of Congress that the corporate parents of cigarette manufacturers will capitalize on the growing influence derived from recent mergers with food companies.

In 1985, the nation's top two cigarette companies, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, bought General Foods and Nabisco Brands, respectively. In October, Philip Morris bought Kraft Inc. for $13.1 billion, and the company now spends $2.5 billion a year on advertising, highest in U.S.

The concern is that the tobacco food giants will discourage media coverage of the hazards of smoking. The main threat is the withdrawal of their accounts from advertising agencies and their ads from magazines, newspapers and radio.

Last April, RJR Nabisco Inc. carried out just such a threat when it dropped Saatchi & Saatchi DFS Compton, its advertising agency for several food products, after the agency created a television commercial announcing Northwest Airlines' new smoking ban.

Industry spokesmen deny that such practices are widespread, and public examples of them are rare. But in the case of the campaign against anti-smoking laws, the cigarette industry has openly proclaimed its heightened commitment to defeating any such legislation.

That commitment takes many forms. In Rancho Mirage, Calif., last year, RJR Nabisco, which manufactures roughly 60 brands of cigarettes worldwide, including Camel and Winston, threatened to move a professional golf tournament it had sponsored for six years to another town if the City Council passed a tough anti-smoking ordinance.

After intense campaigning by a local restaurant association, assisted by an industry-financed lobbyist and someone brought in to give expert testimony on indoor air quality, the City Council made the ordinance less restrictive, and the tournament stayed in town.

The effort is being waged primarily by the Tobacco Institute, the lobbying arm of the industry, and by the Philip Morris Cos. and RJR Nabisco, the nation's two biggest cigarette manufacturers. Philip Morris makes Marlboro and Benson & Hedges, among others.

The Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., an American subsidiary of the British-owned BAT Industries, and American Brands Inc. are the third and fourth largest.

Cigarette manufacturing is among the world's most profitable businesses. The four top American companies generated $52 billion of the $55 billion in retail sales of cigarettes in the United States in 1988, according to Roy Burry, a tobacco industry analyst with Kidder, Peabody in New York.