As nonsmokers gain support for a smoke-free workplace, companies are devising policies that range from placing special ashtrays on the desks of smokers to banning smoking altogether.

A study commissioned by the Tobacco Institute, a group supported by the tobacco industry, showed that more than 30 percent of the large corporations surveyed had adopted some type of smoking policy.

Robert Rosner, a partner in a consulting firm that has set up smoking policies for several large companies, estimates that more than half the companies in the country now have some type of smoking policy.

Rosner, of Rosner, Weis and Lowenberg in Seattle, Wash., said that he and his partners set up the company a year ago when they saw a need for smoking policy consultation. While he said that he does not personally favor any particular policy, he estimated that half of American companies will have banned smoking in five years to save money.

The consulting firm's largest customer to date, Pacific Northwest Bell, has announced that the company's 15,000 employes will not be able to smoke at work after Oct. 15. Pacific Northwest decided on the smoking ban after agonizing two and a half years over employe complaints about smokers, the cost of installing smoking lounges and empathy for the employes who smoke.

"The bottom line is that Pacific Northwest Bell decided it would be better to invest in helping people to quit rather than investing in setting up places for people to smoke," he said.

"It's a bold step," said Jim Monette, a spokesman for Pacific Northwest, adding that the company asked employe groups consisting of nonsmokers, smokers and ex-smokers to make recommendations on policy. Monette said that he hopes the new policy will get him to stop his own pack-a-day habit, and noted that the company is offering to defray the cost of clinics to help employes kick the habit.

"We're not telling employes to stop smoking, because that's a personal thing, but we are asking employes to refrain from smoking on company property," he added.

Some Washington-area companies report that they are studying the issue or already have implemented some type of smoking regulations. The Federal National Mortgage Association limited smoking by its 1,000 employes to certain areas in the workplace, put smoke-filtering machines on the desks of smokers and removed the ashtrays from the conference rooms. Bell Atlantic also limits the smoking areas, and one employe can prohibit smoking in his or her entire office, if it is enclosed. However, smoking is allowed at Bell Atlantic in large, well-ventiliated areas.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes reports that more and more nonsmokers are calling to inquire about their rights. "Smokers are getting very defensive, and non-smokers are getting more militant," said AFSCME's director of research, Linda Lampkin.

When working with firms, Rosner, Weis and Lowenburg cites a report written by William Weis, one of the partners, which claims that smokers boost a company's costs by up to $4,600 per employe annually, counting the expenses of health and life insurance, absenteeism, cleaning and maintenance, and work time wasted by smoking.

The tobacco industry disputes the findings and has commissioned reports of its own that say smokers are not less productive on the job.

Lewis C. Solmon, dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California in Los Angeles, is the author of a report challenging Weis's findings. He also prepared a report on smoking in the workplace released last week by the Tobacco Institute. While he admits that "one is going to have to be more aware of the effects on others than before," he scoffs at the idea of smoking ever being banned in the workplace.

"It's not a reaction to legal and political manipulation, it's a response to good business practices," he said of the smoking policies that exist at companies today. "There's a lot of smoke and no fire."

The survey, by Solmon's Human Resource Policy Corp., is based on responses to an eight-page questionnaire sent to the 1,000 largest service and industrial companies on Fortune magazine's list as well as the 100 companies reported as the fastest growing businesses in the country by Inc. magazine.

Of the 445 companies that responded, 31.9 percent have smoking policies that limit smoking on the job in some way, while 24.3 percent of the companies considered, but rejected, a smoking policy. The report found that 2.9 percent of the 445 companies ban smoking in work areas while 2.5 percent forbid it anywhere on company premises.

Solmon's study also said that 45 percent of the companies instituted smoking policies for what it termed health and safety reasons while 16 percent of the companies were required by law to do so. Another 32.1 percent chose to institute a smoking policy for employe and business considerations.

The executive director and chief counselor for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), John F. Banzhaf, said that nonsmoking workers who are irritated or made ill by cigarette smoke have been successful in suing for, and getting, a smoke-free area in which to work. If the evidence on how tobacco smoke affects nonsmokers increases, many more laws will be passed that are favorable to the nonsmoker, he said.

John Rupp, a partner at the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling who represents the Tobacco Institute, said that the Shimp v. New Jersey Bell case in 1976 is the only precedent he knows in which an employe was able to demand a smoke-free work area because health was impaired by cigarette smoke. He added that New Jersey Bell, which offered no defense in the Shimp case, in 1978 won a similar case, Mitchell v. New Jersey Bell.

Rupp also cited the Smith v. Western Electric Co. case this year, in which the court ruled that there was no evidence that the smoke from co-workers was harming the employe's health.

"If you put all the decisions together, the courts are saying 'work this out as you did in the past,' " Rupp said. Rupp noted that only if an employe has strong physical evidence that smoking makes the working environment unsafe for him or her, could he sue for a smoke-free workplace.

"Rarely is it determined that tobacco smoke is a problem," he said. Employes who sue "have to understand that the medical evidence is going to have to stand up to cross-examination."

Currently, at least eight states and more than 100 municipalities have laws that prohibit smoking in the workplace if any nonsmoker requests a smoke-free environment, according to ASH. Virginia, Maryland and the District do not have such laws, but ones have been proposed and sponsored by Councilwoman Esther P. Gelman and Councilman David L. Scull in Montgomery County and by Councilwoman Hilda Mason in the District.

San Francisco received extensive publicity for its ordinance supporting workers who requested a smoke-free office, put into effect in March 1984. According to Bruce Tsutsui, the environmental health inspector who is in charge of enforcement, none of the approximately 150 complaints that have been filed have gone to court, and enforcement activity takes about one day out of his work week. "It's going very smoothly," he said.

Pressures mounting against smoking may even block the hiring of smokers. Four of the companies surveyed in Solmon's study reported that they do not hire smokers at all.

However, 83 percent of the supervisors surveyed by Response Analysis Corp. in Princeton, N.J., in another study commissioned by the Tobacco Institute, said it made no sense to not hire people simply because they smoked.

"An employer is going to deny himself a third of the adult population" by not hiring smokers, said Anne Browder, assistant to the president of the Tobacco Institute. "I think it's a form of discrimination or selective employment."

Rosner said that some companies consider merely limiting smoking, but abandon the plan when it becomes too expensive. One of his clients originally wanted to set up smoking lounges on every floor but eventually instituted a no-smoking policy for employes when it realized the cost would be $60,000 to set up and ventilate each smoking room.

One company that switched to a no-smoking policy received an extra savings when its custodial service took $500 off the monthly bill because the office stayed cleaner, according to Rosner.

"We think there's a way you can reasonably handle the issue without a complete ban," said Jeffrey D. Ross, who began as the Tobacco Institute's first issues manager three months ago to advise businesses on how to set up smoking policies. Ross said that his institute encourages employes to work out the problems among themselves and sends legal, health and economic information on smoking policies to companies that request it.

Rosner disagrees with the Tobacco Institute's assertion that employes should work the problem out.

"That policy won't work, and the tobacco industry doesn't have any experience helping companies," he said, citing a survey his firm did in which 68 percent of the workers disagreed with the statement that employes should sort out the problem of smoking in the workplace.

"Employes are tired of fighting about the issue. Approaches like that are totally devisive and pit smokers against nonsmokers," Rosner said.

"Four months ago, the tobacco industry was calling smoking policies a communist plot and now they're sending out their own model policy," he added.