A majority of Howard County Council members said yesterday that they will oppose a complete ban on smoking in the county's restaurants and bars, eliminating for now the possibility of a smoke-free zone that would cover the District and its most populous Maryland suburbs.

The move puts Howard on a different course from some other counties in the Washington area, which have recently made dining and drinking a smoke-free experience. Montgomery and Prince George's are among three Maryland counties that have passed bans, and the District is expected to approve a similar measure within months.

"It is too extreme of a position to pass a complete ban," said Council member Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County).

A majority of the five-member council -- David A. Rakes (D-East Columbia), Charles C. Feaga (R-West County) and Merdon -- said they would support a partial ban exempting restaurants and bars that now allow smoking. Many establishments spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with a 1996 law banning smoking in venues without separately ventilated areas.

Glenn E. Schneider, legislative chairman of Smoke Free Howard County, said his group was adamantly opposed to the partial ban and would lobby Merdon and Rakes to reconsider their positions on County Executive James N. Robey's proposal.

"It's a long way until the fat lady sings on this issue," he said. "The tales of this bill's death are greatly exaggerated."

The topic gained momentum in Howard last month when Robey (D) proposed a measure that would outlaw smoking in restaurants and bars but give establishments with separately ventilated smoking areas until 2008 to comply.

Feaga and Rakes quickly announced their opposition to Robey's proposal. But not until an interview yesterday -- after a public hearing on the subject Monday night -- did Merdon say that he would definitely vote against the measure.

The three-member coalition said Robey's proposal would harm small businesses and infringe on smokers' rights.

"With me, it's more of a freedom issue than anything else," Feaga said. "I don't think these folks would stop with smoking. I heard some of the same people say they are opposed to alcohol. I think they are just opposed to everything."

The partial ban, sponsored by Rakes, also eliminates a provision of Robey's bill that would ban smoking in some businesses run out of private homes. Feaga and Merdon said they support the concept of Rakes's bill.

Smoking opponents say bans do not hurt restaurants and bars. The Montgomery County Council released a report last month showing that a ban has had no significant effect on the county's restaurant revenue and employment.

The topic is likely to become a contentious issue in the 2006 county executive election. The leading candidates are Merdon and Council member Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), a supporter of the measure whose brother is a cancer survivor.

"It's just simply the right thing to do for the public health," Ulman said.