After three hours of testimony and debate punctuated by laughter, applause and occasional catcalls from the 40-member audience, the Arlington County Board last week deferred action on a proposed law that would prohibit smoking in a variety of public places.

When Board Member Dorothy T. Grotos and Vice Chairman Ellen M. Bozman objected that the ordinance, modeled after one passed six months ago in Fairfax County, did not include schools, the board voted unanimously to defer a decision until April 29 to five board members smokes, although several of their spouses do.

The proposed ordinance would ban smoking in food and retail stores with more than eight persons, elevators, libraries, art galleries, museums and any cultural facility supported by public funds. Violators would be subject to a $25 fine.

Smoking already is prohibited in some of the places, such as libraries and elevators.

Much of the board's debate hinged on the question of whether smoking is a health hazard for non-smokers. The statement that cigarette smoke consitutes such a hazard went unchallenged until midway through the hearing when Board Member Joseph S. Wholey (whose wife and daughter smoke) said, "I have never had a cigarette in my life but I'm very skeptical about this ordinance. It's very important to know whether the justification is a health measure or cutting down on annoyances. We're talking about exercising our police powers."

Wholey noted that speakers on both sides referred to a three-year old article published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Those against the ordinance, including Raymond Oliverio, a Tobacco Institute official, claimed that the article's findings proved that smoking doesn't harm non-smokers. Referring to the proposed law he urged the board to "about this obnoxious nuisance."

Those who supported the proposed law or wanted it expanded to include restaurants and schools sited the article as evidence that smoking is hazardous to the health of non-smokers.

Among them was Hazel Brown, who told the board that she must drastically restrict her activities because of potential exposure to tobacco smoke. When exposed to smoke, Brown said, she experiences vomiting, nausea, fainting spells and "20-minute coughing spasms."

"I can only go to church, the library and occasionally to the drug store," Brown, an ex-smoker, said. "I can't go to theaters because smoking is allowed in the lobbies."

John O'Hara urged the board to enact the law and extend it to restaurants, because he, his wife and teenage son are allergic to tobaccco smoke. "This word 'annoyance' I don't like," O'Hara said.. Headaches and severe eye irritation are health problems, not annoyances, he said.

In an analogy popular with the smokers, who were outnumbered by the non-smokers at the hearing, Wholey suggested that the county ban bacon because it contains suspected carcinogens. County Board Chairman John W. Purdy countered, "If you eat bacon it doesn't affect me, but if you smoke it might."

Several non-smokers also testified against the proposed law. "You don't see anybody smoking in this room" said one man, gesturing at the three red "No Smoking" signs posted in the county board room. "You don't need this ordinance."

Several board members questioned the potential difficulty of enforcing the ban. "I don't think this is the kind of thing that's going to take up a lot of police officers' time," said Purdy, "People will obey the law."

"Then why not just put up signs and let people obey?" Board Member Grotos asked.

"Enforcement is an important question," said Wholey, who suggested that the county print and post 50,000 signs asking people not to smoke. "Health is not a serious issue; annoyance clearly is. It's a matter of taste: Non-smokers don't like smokers. I like the idea of a two-year trial. Then we could see whether things are better in Arlington or Fairfax" and compare the success of a law versus a voluntary campaign.

Wholey's proposal was not greeted with enthusiasm by other board members.

Board Member Walter L. Frankland, who remained uncharacteristically silent during much of the discussion, said, "If this county board cannot pass an ardinance which affects the schools, why should we do it?"

The board then agreed to defer consideration until April 29 and directed county attorney Jerry K. Emrich to examine the question of extending the law to include schools.

In other action, the board voted to continue its monitoring and fees for tennis court use at two courts, Barcroft and Bluemont this summer, but not to charge fees or send monitors to any other courts.