Like scattered raindrops gathering toward a flood, the antismoking movement is growing around the nation.
Not that America's cigarette smokers are about to have their weed banned.
But more and more states and cities are considering -- and in many cases, enacting -- rules limiting the places where cigarettes can be smoked. Private companies increasingly are doing likewise.
The cigarette industry considers the regulatory threat so ominous that it has hired Charles Morgan Jr., one of the nation's best-known civil liberties lawyers, to help it combat the tide.
Last year, according to the Tobacco Institute, the industry's lobbying arm, two-thirds of the states considered antismoking legislation. Five states joined the roster of those with laws.
At least 27 states now here laws that limit, in one way or another, smoking in public places. Communities in almost that many states have ordinances regulating smoking in public.
"There is no question that we are seeing a change in public attitudes toward the rights of nonsmokers," said John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) a major antismoking group here.
"Many voluntary steps are being taken by employers to restrict smoking. Some refuse to hire smokers. Some give bonuses tor not smoking. People are filing suits, and more are in the works, to protect their rights as nonsmokers. There things will have an important effect," he said.
The appearance of Morgan, onetime Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union, on the tobacco scene coincides with a subtle change of tack by the Tobacco Institute in protecting cigarettes.
Its battle is geared less to the old argument that a smoker's smoke is not a health danger or a nuisance to the nonsmoker.
The institute now is appealing to the antiregulatory, anti-Big Government moods its officials think are rife in the country, and arguing that smokers' rights are as precious as those of nonsmokers.
That approach was used -- apparently with success -- in California last fall, where the largest and costliest of the smoking-and-regulation controversies occurred.
California voters rejected a ballot issue that would have established the country's strictest limits on smoking in public places and in work places.
The institute, which represents five of the six major cigarette companies, and individual companies spent more than $5 million to defeat the California "Clean Air Initiative," as it was called.
"We feel this kind of proposition is an intrusion into the businessman's and the individual's rights," said Walker Merryman, an institute spokesman. "But the antismokers can organize very well and come up with a good basis for their case. We don't think California will dissuade them for a moment.
"We don't think the legislatures will see amy letup in the efforts to get bills passed," Merryman continued. "But we think there is a general antiregulatory attitude in the country. You have California. In Illinois, Gov. [Jim] Thompson vetoed a stiff bill. The Chicago City Council overwhelmingly rejected an ordinance last year.
"There were something like 84 other bills rejected around the country," Merryman said. "But there is no doubt that the opposition will be back. A lot of people tend to believe the worst about tobacco after 15 years of warning labels. It takes a tremendous effort to change that perception in the legislatures' and the public's mind."
The tremendous effort, so far, translates into money the tobacco industry pours into political, legal and advertising campaigns -- an effort the antismokers have found difficult to cope with.
The institute will not confirm the figures, but it reportedly spent more than $1 million on legal fees in 1977 and more than half a million dollars on public relations.
"Wherever you go head-to-head with the tobacco people, you lose. They are going to outgun you 5 or 8 to 1," said Banzhaf of ASH.
Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, said the smokers' rights movement in recent years has been making "slow but steady progress, despite the lack of real support from the federal grvernment or the major health organizations."
"The interesting thing," Banzhaf said, "is that small, local grass-roots groups or individuals are behind this. Most of the other big nationwide movements -- civil rights and environment, for example -- have been spearshaded by major organizations."
Although the institute cites the defeat of efforts to regulate smoking in public places, the evidence is elear that the battle is only starting.
"Our concern is what this pertends for society and business, for governmental bodies to be regulating public behavior," Merryman said. "It is dangerous when you try to paint our members as social pariahs and to make 60 to 80 million smoking Americans second-class citizens. We already sit in the back of the plane and the bus."