Montgomery County high school students will still be able to light up next year, if their principals let them.

A ban on smoking at all 22 county high schools was to go into effect in September, but last week the county school board withdrew that edict and opted to allow individual principals to decide whether students can smoke on campus.

The action makes Montgomery and Fairfax counties the only area jurisdictions that permit principals to ban smoking.

Only the District totally bans smoking on school property by students.

The Montgomery board's action was characterized by a number of high school principals as providing little impetus for major change. They predicted that all schools will opt to maintain the current policy that students above ninth grade may smoke in designated areas with parental permission.

"I don't know of anybody who is going to try to wipe it out altogether," Montgomery Blair principal Joseph Villani said. "It would be impossible without additional support. Instead, what a number of schools will probably do is what we plan to do here: Use the decision to tighten up and enforce current smoking restrictions."

In voting to give principals a choice, school board members acknowledged it would be difficult to enforce a ban but said that their action was a compromise. While it was their understanding that money is not available to hire security monitors to impose an absolute ban, board members said, they would like principals to try to hire monitors if they felt that they could.

But board member Marian Greenblatt, who supported outlawing all smoking, said that the action was "without backbone." Smoking is a health hazard, she said, and allowing schools to continue to have smoking areas amounts to giving students "a special prize if you smoke."

Greenblatt was joined by student board member Kurt Hirsch in voting against allowing principals discretion. But Hirsch said that he voted against it because a ban in any high school was doomed to failure.

"I am a nonsmoker, a militant nonsmoker," Hirsch said. "But smoking is a filthy habit that we, as a society, have in some way chosen to condone. . . . Banning it doesn't work . . . instead it's going to hurt people like me who don't want to be around any cigarette smoke because the smokers will be forced into my bathrooms."

School principals, required by the latest regulation to meet with school and community leaders before reaching a decision, agreed with Hirsch that smoke still would be in the air, with or without a ban.

"There is no question that none of the principals favor smoking," Springbrook High principal Thomas Marshall said. "We all know it is just going to increase the inside problem."

When the lame-duck board majority took up the issue in November, following an election defeat, all 22 of the county's high school principals said that they would oppose any changes in the current regulations.

But the board, with the support of Superintendent Edward Andrews, voted to go ahead with the ban anyway.

That plan ran into a major obstacle in February, during the budget session, when a majority of the newly elected school board eliminated the funds to hire the additional security monitors that Andrews said would be essential to enforce the new regulation.