The Peoples Drug Store chain will become the first in the nation to put dentists in its drug stores.

A pair of dental clinics -- staffed by five dentists and up to 15 paraprofessionals -- will open in September in two Peoples stores in the District of Columbia and Maryland.

The dental offices will be owned and run by Dr. Mark Taff, a Bethesda dentist, and will lease space in the drug stores, Peoples President Sheldon W. Fantle said yesterday.

The first two clinics, Taff said, will be the prototype units for a large chain of franchised drug storn-dental clinics and are certain to be controversial among both dentists and druggists.

Operating a dentists' office in a drug store -- or another store -- is illegal under a Virginia law, but Taff said "we're going to Challenge it."

The same Virginia regulations prohibit dentists from advertising, Taff pointed out, but the federal courts and the Federal Trade Commission have struck down that provision on the grounds it illegally restricts competition among dentists.

The clinics will be owned by Taff so they comply with laws prohibiting anyone but a dentist from owning a dental practice.

Taff said he does not plan to work in the clinics himself but is hiring five dentists and assistants to work for him.

Each of the clinics will have one dentist on duty at a time and will be open 72 hours a week -- 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, 9 to 5 on Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays, Taff said.

The first two clinics will be at the Peoples stores in the Waterside Mall at 401 M St. SW in Washington and at Sargent and Chillum Roads NW in Prince George's County.

Taff, a graduate of the Maryland Dental School, said he has formed a company called Family Dental Centers to operate the clinics. Taff's company, in which he has two non-dentist partners, will finance the first two clinics, but Peoples probably will own some of the facilities as the chain expands, he said.

Taff said he plans to hire specialists -- orthodontists, periodontists, oral surgeons and children's dentists -- to provide specialized services as the chain expands.

The dentists said his drug store clinics are meant to serve the 55 percent of the American people who do not see a dentist regularly. Nearly half of those people, he added, say they don't get regular dental care because they can't afford it.

"Our fees will be 20 to 50 percent lower than the national average," Taff said , and the clinics will take cash, checks, credit cards or dental insurance as payment.

Peoples is the first drug chain to team up with a dentist, said Roy White, editor of Drug Store News, the leading industry trade publication.

"The drug chains have been looking at this very carefully, but no one else has taken the plunge so far as I know," said White. Searse, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward are experimenting with dental offices in some of their California stores, he added.

White said dental offices are part of the "total family health care" concept that many drug stores are moving toward.

People's already has optical departments in 42 of its stores, and runs its own laboratories to make glasses. That business is "in the black and growing very nicely" said a spokesman for the company.

The decision to experiment with dental offices is also meant to give Peoples an advantage in Washington's highly competitive chain drug market.

"Peoples is an innovative company," said chief operating officer Richard Schuman. "This innovation is another indication that we are different from the competition."

A spokesman for the local chapter of the American Dental Association said the group is not familiar with Peoples plans and thus could not comment on them.

Dental groups have complained in the past that walk-in clinics generally provide only "crisis care." The profession as a whole is moving toward comprehensive, continuing dental hygiene programs.