In a way, an injustice is being done to one of this nation's top public health experts, former Utahn James O. Mason.

That's because of the rationale being given for Dr. Mason's new appointment as the top aide to Secretary Louis O. Sullivan of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.The word is that Mason is being brought into the post to appease those who are unhappy with Sullivan's views on abortion. Consequently, attention is focusing on Mason's views as an opponent of abortion.

But, important as abortion is, Dr. Mason is anything but a man with just one issue on his mind or with a narrow range of expertise. On the contrary, he is has a broad background in the medical field and has a wide spectrum of concerns.

His impressive background includes service as director of the National Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, director of the Utah Department of Health, commissioner of the Health Services Corporation for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and administrator of the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.

An effective and far-sighted administrator who recognizes public health problems before they become crises and anticipates the best solution to them, Dr. Mason is also a nationally-respected authority on infectious diseases who has published many scientific articles.

Among the major challenges he sees Health and Human Services facing in the next few years are finding a cure for AIDS, working to reduce infant death rates, and setting health goals for the year 2000.

Let's hope HHS adds at least a couple of other items to that list. One of them should be getting Americans to smoke and drink less. Tobacco kills as many Americans every 46 days as AIDS has killed in six years. Alcohol is by far the most abused drug. Another challenge for any federal operation as big as HHS is to recognize that problems are best solved not by bureaucrats holding down a desk in Washington but by those closest to the problems.

In any event, the toughest jobs ought to be filled by the most able people. That's exactly what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is getting in Dr. James O. Mason.