NEW YORK (AP) _ The American Public Health Association has joined a nationwide campaign to urge universities, pension funds and private investors to dump their tobacco stocks.

The campaign ''is based on the moral contradiction of making a profit by killing people,'' said Anne Marie O'Keefe, a member of the board of the Tobacco Divestment Project in Boston. ''We're talking about the moral equivalent of the Medellin cartel selling stocks on the exchange.''

Medical schools and schools of public health are a particular target of the campaign, the American Public Health Association said in a statement prepared for a press conference today.

''To invest in the promotion of tobacco use will adversely affect world health and is, at its very core, contrary to the goals of many institutions,'' said Dr. Joyce Lashof, dean of the school of public health at the University of California, Berkeley, and president-elect of the public health association.

Johns Hopkins, Harvard and the City University of New York are among the institutions that have already announced they would sell all of their tobacco holdings.

Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, said, ''It was incompatible for the school to be making profits on the sale of tobacco, given the fact that smoking ... is the greatest single preventable cause of death, disability and disease today.''

''The real addictor isn't nicotine - it's money,'' said Brad Krevor, executive director of the Tobacco Divestment Project. ''In order to bring some sanity and effective control to what's happening in this country, we have to attack squarely the obscene profitability of tobacco,'' he said.

Brennan Dawson, a spokeswoman for the Tobacco Institute, the industry's lobbying and public relations organization, said stocks are not issued by tobacco companies, but by their corporate parent companies.

''There are no tobacco stocks,'' she said.

George Knox, vice-president for public affairs of Philip Morris Companies, Inc., in New York, declined to comment.

The public health association said the aim of the campaign was ''to free Americans from tobacco addiction and to promote a smokefree society. It champions a single proposition: that as individuals and as members of institutions we should not profit from tobacco institution.''

Smoking kills 434,000 people a year in the United States and costs the nation $52 billion anually in health expenses and time lost from work, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Deborah McLellan, the anti-tobacco coordinator for the public health association, said the association has sent letters to deans of public health schools urging them to sell tobacco stocks. The letters will go next to deans of medical schools, she said.

''I've received calls from all over the country from people who are interested in the topic or who are trying to get their states to divest or their institutions to divest,'' she said.

Krevor said that the divestment project plans to lobby state legislators for laws prohibiting ownership of tobacco stocks by state pension funds. Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are already debating such laws, he said.

''The really exciting areas and the really tough battles will be at the state legislative level,'' he said.