The battle to curb smoking in public places moves into the heart of Virginia's tobacco industry Sept. 19 when a Richmond court hears a suit filed by an activist group against the Philip Morris Co. for failing to post no-smoking signs in its cigarette plant there.

Since July 1, all businesses in the state have been required by law to post the signs in areas where customers stand in line for services, such as a checkout line at a supermarket.

The activists, organized as the Virginia Group to Alleviate Smoking in Public, say Philip Morris, the largest maker of food and tobacco products in the United States, has not complied with the law in the plant's gift shop or at the counter where plant tours begin.

"If you want to commit suicide, that's your business," said Anne Morrow Donley, of Richmond, who brought the suit for the group. "But don't take me with you. Breathing's a very popular thing."

Robert Moore, director of community relations for Philip Morris, would not comment on specific allegations in the suit.

"We think the whole thing is a frivolous publicity stunt," Moore said. "We obey the law in every respect, and I think our courts have better things to be doing."

Donley and her colleagues, who started the group in 1985, insist they are not against smoking in general but are opposed to smoking in public. In a state where tobacco is still the largest cash crop, the activists seek what they call a "smoke-free public society."

"I didn't have any major problems with smoking in public until I moved to Richmond," said the group's president, Vivian Dorrough. "Here, there are militant, pro-smoking people blowing smoke in your face and in your children's faces."

The group lobbied heavily for passage of the no-smoking law, and it has been at the forefront of enforcing it in a campaign that includes several lawsuits and complaints.

Donley said her organization, which claims 1,000 members statewide, has distributed 3,000 no-smoking signs and 5,000 brochures explaining the law to more than 400 stores and businesses since July.

The suit against Philip Morris originated when Donley, who had gone to the company's gift shop for another reason, noticed there were no signs prohibiting smoking at the shop's counter or the tour counter.

Donley said she has visited the headquarters four times and has never seen a no-smoking sign there. She inquired about it, wrote a letter that went unanswered and even offered to give the company one of her signs.

"You don't tickle the toes of a giant without thinking about it," said Donley. "It seems to me that we were bending over backwards."

The suit, filed last month, will be heard Sept. 19 in Henrico County General District Court. It asks for the maximum $25 fine and $10 in court costs.

Going to court was a last resort, and the group is not trying to make a solely symbolic statement against a tobacco giant, activists said.

"We decided we weren't going to march in on everybody since the law is so new," Donley said. "If we had wanted to, we could have done that on July 2."

The group says businesses generally have complied with the new law, and few formal complaints have been required.

"When you go into a store on your daily business and you see there's not a sign, you pop over to the manager, and that usually takes care of it," said Dorrough. "A lot of times, when you're leaving, you can see them holding our brochure and calling someone on the phone, so you know they're doing something about it."

The group recently filed a complaint against Food Lion grocery store in the Oak Hill Shopping Center in Henrico County. On Aug. 22, a judge fined the store $25, and Food Lion asked for a rehearing. It was held Friday, and the same judge upheld the fine. Food Lion is appealing the ruling.

According to national Food Lion spokesman Mike Mozingo, the store had initially posted signs but the signs were unclear about what the law required. So the store took down the original signs and posted new ones.

"We were in the middle of switching signs when we were cited," said Mozingo. "You appeal a case when you feel like you've been wrongly charged."

Donley and Dorrough have other cases pending against three Henrico County stores. Those cases are scheduled to be tried in late September and early October.