Smoking in public places is now against the law in Howard County but, non-smokers complain, violators needn't worry much about getting nabbed.

Although a strongly worded anti-smoking law went into effect in August, responsibility for enforcing it has yet to be assigned to any county agency or official - leaving violations to be dealt with on an admitted "low-priority" basis by the police department.

Noting ruefully that "sometimes you just have to go step-by-step, slowly but surely," a spokesman for the non-smokers group that pushed for the legislation said a delegation will meet today with County Executive Edward Cochran to seek some firm enforcement mechanism.

Officially known as the Indoor Clean Air Act, the county law prohibits all smoking in public places or meetings, except in designated areas, and requires separate smoking and non-smoking areas in restaurants with seating capacities of more than 75 people.

Violation of the anti-smoking law is a misdemeanor, subject to a fine of up to $50.

According to Virginia Thomas, the non-smoking chairman of the County Council and sponsor of the anti-smoking bill. Howard County's law is "probably the strongest in the nation. You have to be specifically exempted, otherwise you're covered."

Because of fervent lobbying during the bill's turbulent history - that included a veto by the county executive because the original bill contained no penalties for violations - barber shops, beauty salons, bars and lounges are exempted.

Robert Schoen, an optometrist who is active in the local unit of GASP (Group Against Smokers' Pollution), estimated the law has met with a "good 20 to 30 per cent compliance at this point," although he acknowledged that others say compliance is higher.

Schoen said he counts "half-hearted compliance" as non-compliance. He cites as examples poor display of hastily-scrawled non-smoking signs, failure to assign designated smoking areas in public buildings with the result that smoking occurs everywhere, and the location of non-smoking tables in restaurants "right on top of" tables where smoking is permitted.

Arbitrarily picking a spot and declaring it a permitted smoking area doesn't necessarily meet the requirements of the no-smoking law, according to Kira Lis, a co-founder of the Columbia GASP unit, which now has about 40 members.

For instance, she said, one Columbia store has made the area near its cash register a smoking area, which means customers waiting to pay are subject to smokers' fumes. She said she has also received reports of one local government agency regularly dealing with the public where individual workers have declared their own desks - complete with signs - to be designated smoking areas.

Lis said she and her husband, Tom, founded a GASP unti here in September 1976, one month after moving to Columbia. She said GASP is a national organization headquartered in College Park.

Bud Buell, the owner of Buell's Restaurant on U.S. Rte. 40 north of Columbia, is cited by GASP members and sympathizers as perhaps their most vocal opponent.

Buell says they are right.

"I think the law's unjust," he said recently. "It's taking away a person's privilege. You get done eating a big meal you want to light up a cigarette or cigar - it's something to relax.

"I can see it in doctors' offices or elevators," he said, "but bars and lounges?"

Reminded that bars are exempted from the law, Buell repleid. "Yeah, I know, but they start with one thing and they'll want to cut out everything."

Linda Paterni, public information officer for the county police department, said police have so far received only one complaint about the no-smoking law being violated.

A policeman was sent to settle the matter after a patron complained on Oct. 21, that no non-smoking area was provided at a motel restaurant on U.S. Rte. 175. The restaurant manager pleaded ignorance of the law, the officer explained what the law required and the manager promised to comply, Paterni said.

While police will respond to specific complaints, manpower restrictions keep them from routinely checking stores and restaurants for compliance with the no-smoking law, she added.

"I hesitate to call it low priority," she said, "though in reality it is."

Paterni said a directive from the police chief reminds officers that the department recognizes its "mandate to enforce all the laws at all levels" but urges them to use "discretion" and patience in enforcing the law on smoking.