Charles County, where tobacco once drove the local economy, is moving toward tougher rules against smoking in restaurants.

The county's elected commissioners balked, though, at a proposal for a blanket ban on smoking in all county bars and restaurants.

If officially adopted, the tentative compromise they reached last week would effectively eliminate nonsmoking sections within restaurants. Proprietors instead would have to choose whether to operate entirely smoke-free restaurants or to allow smoking. Each restaurant would have to post a sign telling diners whether it was a smoking establishment.

In Charles, establishments now can ban smoking if they wish. But if they allow smoking, they must have designated smoking and nonsmoking areas.

The change is intended to protect diners in nonsmoking sections bothered by secondhand smoke from nearby tables, the commissioners said.

County Attorney Roger L. Fink was directed to draft an ordinance that would outline the policy, which Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) described as a "baby step in the right direction."

The initial proposal, endorsed by Commissioner Robert J. Fuller (D-St. Charles), a former smoker and throat cancer survivor, called for a ban on smoking at all bars and restaurants. Under the county's code home rule powers, the proposal could have been enacted without approval from the state legislature.

When the issue was discussed July 13, some commissioners were wary of imposing the smoking ban. They said it would hurt the bar business and charitable and fraternal organizations such as the Waldorf Jaycees, which allows smoking during its bingo games. The Jaycees grossed $1.6 million last year from bingo operations and donated the proceeds to dozens of groups and agencies in the county.

"I think everybody agrees the less smoking the better," said commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large). But Levy said he was "not prepared to make it a blanket ban and put those businesses out."

Levy suggested restaurants be made to choose whether they would be smoking or nonsmoking establishments. He predicted the demand for smoke-free eating environments would lead many restaurants away from smoking.

He cited a poll posted on the Southern Maryland Online Web site, which asked whether restaurants should allow smoking. As of Tuesday, 77 percent of the 2,816 respondents favored smoke-free restaurants.

Levy also proposed creating a registry for restaurant jobs, so employees at restaurants that allow smoking could find work in a nonsmoking environment.

Some residents criticized the commissioners for backing away from a smoking ban by allowing restaurants to choose their policy.

"I wish they would just put a blanket ban on [smoking in] restaurants," said Leslie Hoglund, a White Plains resident who pushed for the smoke-free legislation. "I feel this might be a waste of time."

Warren Yates, general manager of Captain John's Crab House and Marina on Cobb Island, also disagreed with the compromise. He said his restaurant probably would go nonsmoking if he had to choose, but other nearby competitors might not, and "it could take business away from us."

"I really think it should be one way or the other. Either leave it the way it is, or make it all nonsmoking," he said.

Other restaurateurs said they would welcome a smoking ban.

"I think that sooner or later everybody down here is going to go nonsmoking, and the better off we'll all be," said Rita Loredo, the wife of the owner of Loredo's Restaurant and Lounge in White Plains. "They might as well get started."