A Virginia mother was sentenced yesterday to 10 days in jail for defying a court order not to smoke in front of her children.

Tamara Silvius, 44, who has said she smokes about a pack of cigarettes a day, was led from a Caroline County courtroom in handcuffs. But the judge allowed her to post a $500 bond to stay out of jail while she appeals the ruling.

"It should never have come to this," Silvius said in a telephone interview, after spending four hours in jail before being released. ". . . I hope and pray my two little kids don't think they had their mama sent to jail."

The sentence is the latest development in a bitter and long-running battle between Silvius and her ex-husband, Steven Silvius, over custody of their children, ages 10 and 8. But the restriction on smoking, especially in a tobacco-friendly state, has captured far greater attention.

"It is within the court's powers to jail somebody for criminal contempt, but she's not happy about getting 10 days," said her attorney, Tucker Henley of Richmond. "Virginia is such a big tobacco state, it's kind of surprising. I've never heard of a case where you restrict behavior this way."

But her ex-husband's attorney, Mark A. Murphy of Fredericksburg, said the measure was necessary to protect the health of the children, who live with their father and often visit their mother on weekends. The Silviuses have joint custody.

"With the history of tobacco in this area, people are more understanding about people's right to smoke," Murphy said yesterday. "But any judge who cares about children is going to step in to protect them when a case like this is presented to them."

Tamara Silvius, a waitress at an Interstate 95 truck stop, has been smoking since she was 16, she said. The smoking habit, as well as her drinking, became an issue several years ago as the Silviuses ended their 13-year marriage.

As part of the custody arrangement, a court order last August barred Tamara Silvius from smoking around her children. She appealed that order to Caroline Circuit Court, where it was upheld, and has filed another appeal with the Virginia Court of Appeals.

"She's free to smoke every other day," Murphy said. "It's only when the children are there that the court is asking her to prioritize her children over her smoking."

Murphy said the children, a boy and a girl, would return from visits with their mother "with their clothes drenched with the smell of smoke and with breathing problems."

The U.S. Surgeon General's Office has said for years that exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.

Tamara Silvius already had violated the court order once. At Thanksgiving, while driving her children to South Carolina, Silvius, wanting to smoke as she drove, tacked up plastic between the front and back seats and secured it with duct tape. In January, she was found guilty of violating the order in that instance and was given a 10-day suspended sentence.

"I was found guilty because I did it," she said. "The children were not in a smoke environment. I asked if it bothered them."

She was accused of the second violation in June, which led to yesterday's sentence.

Silvius declined to say whether she has tried to quit smoking. "That's not what the order is," she said. "I don't think that should be an issue. It's a shame the court got involved in my personal life."

She said that her children are on vacation with their father and that she looks forward to seeing them when they return.

"I love my kids," she said. "We have a good time together."