The Montgomery County Council approved sweeping antismoking legislation yesterday that would ban or severely restrict smoking in virtually any place or business that serves the public.

The County Council, in approving the region's most far-reaching antismoking bill, voted unanimously to prohibit smoking in large indoor spaces that cater to the public. Included in the ban are such places as the common areas of shopping malls, the lobbies of hotels, banks, theaters, auditoriums and concert halls, a transportation waiting area or reception areas of private office suites, except one-person offices.

In recent years, legislation to ban smoking in public places has become one of the most controversial topics facing local governments and private employers.

Increasingly, antismoking groups have fought their battle as a public health issue, arguing that nonsmokers can suffer long-term health problems from being in enclosed areas with people who smoke. The American Cancer Society estimates 320,000 Americans die each year from diseases linked to smoking.

The antismoking battle has been successful in a number of areas. Beginning April 23, federal regulations will go into effect banning smoking on short commercial airline flights. California legislation prohibiting smoking on air, bus and train trips went into effect in January, but many carriers have said they will adhere only to the federal rules.

Several jurisdictions besides Montgomery have enacted strict antismoking legislation. Among them are San Jose, Seattle and Cambridge, Mass.

Under the wide-ranging legislation that council members said would close the gaps in Montgomery's current smoking laws, a ban on smoking in retail stores would be broadened to cover more businesses. Currently, firms employing eight or fewer employees per shift are exempt from the smoking ban. But the stricter law would exempt only small firms employing one or two persons per shift.

The law allows for, but does not require, provision of small, separate smoking areas in businesses and public areas.

Although the smoking ban will not apply in Rockville or Gaithersburg, the council strongly urged the governing bodies of those municipalities to adopt it.

The council action, which County Executive Sidney Kramer is expected to sign into law, also would require bowling alleys, barbershops and beauty salons to have separate nonsmoking areas. These three types of businesses were exempted from previous county smoking laws, but would now be required to have separate smoking and nonsmoking areas, similar to the sections that restaurants already have to provide.

The council action was hailed by members of the American Lung Association of Maryland, who had lobbied for its passage as the most forceful antismoking legislation in the Washington area.

"I suspect we are ahead of the curve locally," said Michael Faden, an attorney for the County Council who helped prepare the legislation.

Faden said that movement is very definitely in the direction of limiting smoking. The District of Columbia recently banned smoking in taxis and required restaurants to set aside 25 percent of their seating for nonsmokers. Several area jurisdictions have passed laws requiring no-smoking areas in restaurants and curbing smoking in government offices, but have shied away from broader bans.

The Maryland Senate approved a bill yesterday requiring restaurants with seating for more than 75 people to provide nonsmoking areas, and a measure to forbid tobacco smoking in retail stores. But the House, which has killed antismoking bills, has not yet acted on either measure. The Virginia House defeated a restriction last month on smoking in public areas.

Montgomery's legislation to control smoking in public places dates to 1977 when the council banned smoking in its own government meeting places. Subsequent legislation included prohibitions on smoking in retail stores and health care facilities, and last July the county's restrictions on restaurants went into effect.

Council member William E. Hanna Jr. had sponsored the bill that resulted in yesterday's legislation, but the final law was more the product of council member Rose Crenca. A longtime foe of smoking who heads the council's Health and Human Services Committee, Crenca recommended some strong amendments to Hanna's bill.

Some amendments prompted protests from Hanna who said it was a case of government going too far. "This isn't Russia . . . government has to stop somewhere," he said, as the council waged a lively debate that pitted the civil rights of individuals versus health concerns.

Hanna objected to the inclusion of bowling alleys because he said that tobacco smoke is part of the ambiance there, and he did not want to include barbershops or the reception areas of private businesses. Hanna also said that small businesses would be hurt by losing the no-smoking exemption.

However, Crenca and council member Bruce Adams vigorously opposed Hanna's moves to weaken the bill. Crenca defended the bill as a "good product" that she said will be accepted by the public with a minimum of concern about infringement on individual rights.

There had been little public reaction to the council's proposed action. A public hearing on the issue last September attracted only five speakers, most of whom were in favor of smoking restrictions.