Opponents of a ballot initiative that would impose a 5-cent deposit on most bottled and canned beverages purchased in the District have raised about $743,000 for a media-oriented campaign that is setting records for money spent on such efforts.

The Clean Capital City Committee, a coalition of glass packagers, bottlers and retail merchants, has been airing a blizzard of radio advertisements and appealing to church and community groups in an effort to derail the so-called bottle bill months before the Nov. 3 election.

In marked contrast, the Bottle Bill Initiative Campaign reported in statements filed July 31 with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance that it has raised about $38,000 -- all in contributions of $500 or less -- from people supporting the ballot measure.

"This is the first time in the history of the city that we have seen this type of expenditure made by companies, groups and people on behalf of an initiative," said Keith A. Vance, the director of the campaign finance office.

Contributions to the bottle bill effort, which are not limited by D.C. campaign finance laws, have raised eyebrows in some quarters.

D.C. Democratic National Committeeman John Hechinger, who has no role in the campaign, said the ability of special interest groups to spend without limit on the campaign "is a startling thing."

Allowing unlimited contributions to initiative campaigns is tantamount to granting special interest groups the right to "buy a campaign," said Peter Williams, director of D.C. Common Cause and a participant in the pro-bottle bill effort.

The Clean Capital City Committee has received contributions totaling $113,400 from the Glass Packaging Institute, $67,700 from the Can Manufacturers' Institute and several other donations in excess of $25,000 apiece from brewers and bottlers.

Under D.C. law, mayoral candidates may receive individual contributions of no more than $2,000 apiece, while at-large council candidates and the council chairman are limited to $1,000 contributions. Council members representing a single ward can receive no more than $400 from individual contributors.

There have been no such limits placed on contributions made on behalf of initiatives and referendums since 1979, when that portion of the D.C. Code was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which deemed it a violation of an individual's First Amendment rights.

Committees created to support or oppose previous ballot measures -- which addressed such issues as rent control, gambling, shelter for the homeless and a proposed tax credit for private education -- have never attracted more than $126,000 in total contributions.

Forces for and against the bottle bill disagree on the benefit of spending so much on Initiative 28, as the bottle bill measure will be termed on the ballot. But both sides agree that the totals indicate that a fierce battle has begun for the votes of city residents who in the past have stayed away from the polls in an off-year election that features only school board candidates.

"The support for Initiative 28 is very strong throughout the District," said Jonathan Puth, director of the Bottle Bill Initiative Campaign. "{The opponents'} strategy is to pour money into slick mailings and advertising until they can turn around the support."

Ed Arnold, spokesman for the Clean Capital City Committee, said the money being raised is needed to persuade District voters not to vote automatically in favor of the initiative.

"We are combating some very pervasive arguments {and} . . . a great deal of misinformation," Arnold said. Recycling cans and bottles, he said, is the answer to the District's litter problem.

"The bulk of our money is being spent on a public awareness campaign and on advertising," Arnold said. "You have a situation where you have to make the public aware, first of all, that the initiative is around . . . . "

Bill opponents have said that the nickel deposit subjects D.C. residents to an unfair tax that will hurt small businesses by forcing consumers to go to Maryland or Virginia to buy their beverages. Returning containers to stores, they say, also will cause sanitation problems and impose undue hardship on people who have no place to store the empty containers.

But Puth and others say that in other states the bill has been effective in reducing litter.