At lunch time, during coffee breaks or when work frustrations pile high, more and more smokers are finding there's only one way to indulge their habit: leave the office building before lighting up.

First, many employers designated smoking rooms or smoking areas. Now, some federal buildings, hospitals, environmental health concerns and private businesses have banned smoking altogether, forcing smokers to retreat outdoors.

Some say they feel like second-class citizens. Others commend smoke-free policies for helping them to cut down or stop smoking. And many of them agree that, like it or not, smoke-free workplaces are the way of the future.

"I don't think it's fair," Dottie Bolyard said of the smoking restrictions at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she works. "All of a sudden the nonsmokers have rights and we have no rights . . . but I guess we're stuck with it."

The movement for clean air has gone to great lengths in some cases. At the National Wildlife Federation office in Vienna, smoke-free since January 1987, smoking is prohibited in employees' cars parked in the company parking lot.

When the ban was imposed, some employees would stand along Route 7 to smoke. Worried about their safety, the federation set up a picnic table and benches as a designated smoking area.

In the District, the Commission on Public Health has commended 16 of the 18 D.C. hospitals for adopting smoke-free policies. And Potomac Electric Power Co. imposed a company-wide smoking ban in January 1989.

"We feel employees are entitled to a smoke-free environment," said Dana Grabiner, a spokeswoman for Pepco. "We've paid attention to the demonstrated hazards of passive smoke, and we've also listened to desires of employees."

Some have difficulty adapting.

"There should have been a smoking room rather than freezing outside in the winter to smoke a cigarette," said David Duarte, a labor relations specialist at Pepco, who smokes outside its entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

The Veterans Affairs headquarters on Vermont Avenue NW, which has a small employee smoking room in the basement that many smokers find unpleasant, plans to shut it down and become completely smoke-free Oct. 1.

During the workday, smokers can be found in groups of two or three in front of the Veterans Affairs building. Some chat about their projects and daily frustrations.

Theresa Fleming, a systems analyst there, wonders why the smokers' habit seems to be the one singled out for scorn these days.

"I don't mind the anti-smoking policy, but if I have to cut out my smoking, I think people can cut down their radios," she said.

Many smokers who were interviewed would not give their names or allow themselves to be photographed. Some said they didn't want their spouses or friends to know they smoke.

But for some smokers, their "unacceptable" habit has helped them make friends. Riding the elevator or walking through the hallways at work, they recognize and speak to smokers they have seen outdoors.

"We're an endangered species," said Karen Dewey, who works at Veterans Affairs. "You recognize faces; it's kind of a small group."

Some smokers who work in different departments said they sometimes meet outside at lunch and during breaks.

"I sure have met a lot of people outside those exit doors" while smoking, said William Martin, director of security for Washington Hospital Center, which has been smoke-free since April 1989. Lunch time is the best time to meet people, he said. "Most smokers have to have a cigarette after a cup of coffee and a meal."

The anti-smoking movement turned to the workplace because people realized they often spend more time in the office than they do in public places, said Ronald Davis, director of the U.S. Office on Smoking and Health.

There is no District law that prohibits smoking in the workplace, but some Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland jurisdictions restrict smoking in work settings.

Although research on smoking restrictions is not extensive, a 1989 surgeon general's report found that smoke-free policies reduced opportunities to smoke. The report speculates that bans may lead employees to stop smoking.

It worked for Dick Cione, a financial accounting manager at Pepco who credits his company's smoke-free policy with helping him to quit.

"If you're working hard, you can't afford to run out and have a cigarette every 15 minutes," Cione said. "The policy was the push that got me over the hump."

However, most smokers interviewed who work in smoke-free buildings said they have not lowered their overall consumption.

"Aggravations are greater by the time you take the elevator and come out here," Bolyard said while smoking in front of the Veterans Affairs building. "When I get out, I usually end up smoking two instead of one."

Although they would prefer to work and smoke, some smokers say they have been more productive since the smoke-free policies started. By not seeing people smoking in the workplace, some said, they are less tempted to take smoking breaks.

When the Psychiatric Institute of Washington imposed a smoke-free policy two years ago, one employee said, she went outside 10 times a day to smoke.

"Then I saw how it was infringing on my work," she said.

By taking fewer breaks, she eventually started smoking less than her pack and a half a day. "I haven't been out once today," she said before her lunch break. "It's amazing."