It takes just two words to start a fight in Flanagan's Irish Pub: smoking ban.

The customers in this basement Bethesda bar -- the few who are left -- quickly take sides on the Montgomery County ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and on whether the District should follow suit.

"Let the market decide, not the government," said Patrick Ostronic, 49, of Baltimore, relaxing with a beer during Friday's happy hour.

"Why impose your smoke on someone else?" Anthony Pricci, 24, his co-worker, shot back.

When it comes to a smoking ban, there is little middle ground.

"The smokers hate it, the nonsmokers love it," said Antoni Yelamos, a partner in the company that owns Jaleo, a tapas restaurant that straddles the smoking divide with locations in the District and Montgomery.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and a majority of D.C. Council members support a smoking ban that would include bars and restaurants, saying it would reduce secondhand smoke. Supporters say there is a good chance that a ban could be approved by the end of the year.

Opponents say that the District has nearly 200 nonsmoking restaurants and that a ban would reduce freedom of choice in the nation's capital. They also say a ban would hurt the city's vital hospitality industry.

"I'm scared," said Al Jirikowic, owner of Chief Ike's Mambo Room, a quirky and very smoky bar in Adams Morgan. "I would be breaking my contract with my customers. In the buttoned-up D.C. culture, smoking is part of the culture of relaxation and expression."

Proponents of a ban say they are not trying to stamp out fun but merely trying to protect the workers who are exposed to secondhand smoke on the job.

But few workers interviewed Friday said they asked for, or want, protection.

"It's a bar. I choose to work in a bar," said Hannah Conlon, a bartender at Madam's Organ in Adams Morgan. "I make my own decisions."

Seven states and 1,900 localities, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have smoking bans. So do Ireland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and New Zealand. The debate in the District mirrors pre-ban concerns in other cities: namely, whether a smoking ban would hurt bars and restaurants, weaken the economy and reduce the vibrancy of city life.

But New York is still New York, and hard-drinking cities from Boston to Dublin seem to have survived with their reputations intact. A New York City government study showed that the city's bar and restaurant industry was thriving one year after the ban was enacted in March 2003, with business tax receipts up 8.7 percent and employment up by more than 10,000 jobs. In Massachusetts, the Harvard School of Public Health found little or no change in bar and restaurant patronage, meal tax collections or alcoholic beverage excise taxes after the ban was put in place last July.

Morton's, the Steakhouse has 68 restaurants across the county, including 24 in smoke-free jurisdictions. The company has "not seen any decline in business" in those locations, spokeswoman Piper Anderson said. The chain has a restaurant in the District and recently opened one in Montgomery County.

In Montgomery, the Restaurant Association of Maryland cites a reduction in keg beer sales as an indicator that fewer people are sitting down for a cold one.

Looked at from another vantage, Dennis Theoharis, executive director of the Montgomery County Board of Liquor License Commissioners, said the number of places licensed to sell alcohol for on-premises consumption increased from 659 at the time of the ban in October 2003 to 698 in January of this year.

"Those are the hard facts. You can't hide that. That is what it is," Theoharis said. "I don't see any decrease. I've had some licensees call me and say their business was down after the ban, but they have yet to close their doors."

Surviving a smoke-free future may depend, Flanagan's owner Patrick McDonagh said, on whether a bar has an outside area where smokers can have a brew. At his place, customers have to leave their drinks and trudge up a set of stairs to stand on the sidewalk for a smoke. Business is down 30 percent since before the ban, McDonagh said.

He has reduced his staff from three bartenders to two and from six waiters to four. He also has changed his menu and the bands he hires to adjust to older, nonsmoking customers.

"When the smokers left, our clientele left," McDonagh said.

Restaurants report that while their bar business is down, overall revenue is the same or better.

"People are talking about bars and restaurants in one breath, but business owners are talking about their bars, not the restaurants," said Claude Andersen, director of operations for Clyde's Restaurant Group, which runs establishments in the District and Montgomery. Yelamos said his Bethesda Jaleo barely lost a step because of the ban. "I think in general, at some point, it did affect the bar business negatively. However, our overall sales continued to rise."

If the ban has had a significant, continued impact, it is on the local tavern where customers go for a beer, to catch a game and to munch on a pile of hot wings. That would include Flanagan's and Uncle Jed's Roadhouse in Bethesda, which boasts pool tables, dart boards and 20 televisions.

The owner of Uncle Jed's, Alan Emery, said revenue was down 9 percent compared with before the ban. The worst decline has been on football Sundays, he said, when regulars have been staying home to watch the games.

"And it's definitely not improving," he said. "I don't doubt that this is the way the country is going. But all these idiots who said they would go to restaurants more if they were smoke-free, well, where are you?"

During Friday's happy hour, 68 of Emery's customers were on his patio, many of them smoking and enjoying the pleasant evening. Inside his bar were only 18 souls.

But a large number of smokers interviewed said that they were ambivalent about the ban or that they had adjusted. Few said they are going out less or have sought out bars where they can smoke. Many said that they were happy about not returning home smelling like smoke and that they were saving on dry cleaning.

"You just kind of get used to it," said Merri Lesche, 32, of Bethesda. "You just get up and go outside. And we smoke a lot less, which is exactly what they want us to do," she said of supporters of the ban.

Some District smokers, though, see a potential ban as an assault on their freedom and pursuit of happiness.

"It's jacked up," said Angie Green of the District, relaxing with a cigarette at the end of what she called a tough week.

"This is my downtime, my entertainment time," she said. "They should leave me the hell alone."

Elizabeth O'Connell, Joe Violante and Landon Overby dine on the patio at Uncle Jed's Roadhouse in Bethesda.