A few days ago, syndicated columnist James Kilpatrick tried to put the AIDS outbreak in clearer perspective by noting that all sorts of other ailments are taking much bigger tolls.

Just as the AIDS problem has been blown all out of proportion, so has drug abuse been depicted as far more serious than it really is.Worried Americans tell pollsters that drugs are the nation's No. 1 problem. Congress is about to boost spending in the "war on drugs" to $9.1 billion a year. While drug abuse is indeed serious, it certainly shouldn't rank at the very top of the list of America's important concerns.

Just ask Rep. Fortney Stark of California, who has been trying to put the drug threat in perspective by circulating three revealing numbers among his colleagues:

Last year illegal narcotics use killed fewer than 6,000 Americans, while cigarettes caused more than 300,000 deaths and alcohol 60,000.

Yet the public and the government are not clamoring for a "war" on tobacco and booze with anything like the intensity they reserve for drugs, which statistically is a relatively minor killer.

A few more figures can be added to Stark's. Close to 50,000 persons are killed in automobile accidents annually, but that carnage raises little interest except when drunken driving is involved.

About 11,000 people die yearly in falls in the home, and the public hardly notices. Almost as many drown - 5,600 - as fall victim to narcotics. Where is the crash program to teach people to swim and how to avoid cramps when in the water?

As Scripps Howard News Service reports, suicide claims about 30,000 lives annually - five times the toll of drugs. Very little is spent for suicide prevention.

Admittedly, the damage done by drugs greatly exceeds the 6,000 lives it claimed last year. Illicit narcotics are a cause of crime, grief, wasted lives and AIDS transmission.

The problem is grave, but not overwhelming; this country successfully dealt with a cocaine epidemic around the turn of the century. Drugs should be addressed with more balance, less political posturing, and no hysteria.