''Smoking or nonsmoking?'' A question once asked only by airline agents is now being asked by many others in Massachusetts. Newton, a thriving community west of Boston, will soon offer a choice of smoking or nonsmoking in the work place. On Tuesday, the Board of Alderman voted 20 to 4 to require most employers to provide a nonsmoking area for workers, based on negotiated agreement with the employees.
Alderman Robert Tennant, who opposes the measure, says he will seek a vote to reconsider at the board's next meeting June 18. If his effort is defeated, the ordinance will be sent to Mayor Theodore Mann and would become effective two weeks after he signs it.
The city had already limited or banned smoking on public transportation and in public facilities such as grocery stores and retail outlets.
The Newton ordinance is designed to make the city a testing ground for requiring nonsmoking areas in the work place, says Richard Daynard, member of the Newton Board of Aldermen and president of the Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP).
''Passage of the Newton ordinance may catalyze a groundswell among nonsmokers in other communities to get nonsmoking areas in the work place in their home towns,'' says Mr. Daynard. ''And GASP stands ready to help any group seeking to get a similar ordinance passed in other cities and towns.''
GASP is awaiting a final dispensation of a legal case - Marie Lee v. Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare - which challenges the state to provide ''for the safety'' of its employees by protecting them from smokers.
Originally filed in January 1983 by Marie Lee, an employee of the Attleboro office of the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare, the suit requests the state to provide a nonsmoking area in that office, a one-room open space for 40 workers. Judge George W. Hurd of the Bristol County Superior Court has issued an injunction against smoking in that office.
Attorney for Ms. Lee is Edward L. Swedar, legislative secretary of GASP. He says the GASP position assumes that a citizen has the common-law right to sue the state, and that the state has a responsibility to provide a safe work place for its employees. A final solution to the case involving counsel of both sides may be worked out before Superior Court Judge Robert Mulligan, a GASP spokesman says.
The only New England state with a similar law is Connecticut, but that law ''doesn't contain grievance and enforcement procedures,'' says Daynard, who is also a law professor at Northeastern University. Nationally, Minnesota was the first state to restrict smoking at the work place in 1975.
Currently, 21 communities in California have passed laws, the first being Ukayo in 1982. The most publicized is an ordinance that went into effect March 1 in San Francisco. This law gives the nonsmoker veto power over any plan worked out between employers and employees.
The Newton ordinance ''will work because it offers a three-layered process of appeals,'' says Alderman Edward L. Richmond, who submitted the proposal.
The ordinance requires the employer and employees to work out a plan for restricted smoking areas. If this is not satisfactory, an employee can make these appeals: file a grievance through the firm's internal grievance procedure; appeal to the Newton health commissioner who can mediate, hold a formal hearing, and establish a policy; and, file legal action in court as the last resort.
''Once Newton acts, other local governments in Massachusetts will follow suit ,'' Daynard says. Newton was selected as a testing ground for the work-place ordinance, he explains, because that city was the first in the Bay State to ban smoking in grocery stores (1974), and it was the first to require nonsmoking areas in local restaurants (1981). Newton is one of a number of suburban areas that have banned street distribution of free sample packages of cigarettes.
''We have had no problem enforcing our restaurant ordinance,'' says Newton Health Commissioner Bernice Joyle, in charge of enforcing the antismoking laws.
''Some restaurants have expanded their nonsmoking areas well beyond the law, which requires only a 15 percent minimum of the dining area.''
The Newton Health Department conducts at least two inspections a year. It checks to see that signs are posted and the law is obeyed, Commissioner Joyle says.
''We expect the work-place law to work just as smoothly,'' she says. ''We are not planning to hire extra help for enforcement. We plan to publicize the ordinance, and to distribute free literature informing nonsmokers of their rights.''
On July 1 diners who eat out in Cambridge will have the option of being served in a smoke-free area. The city's antismoking ordinance, passed April 23, becomes effective that day.
No specific plans for enforcement of the law have been announced by Cambridge officials. The city manager has assigned a person to create a plan, a spokesman says. Daynard says the Cambridge law is ''self-enforcing'' because ''all a nonsmoker has to do is ask for the no-smoking section of the restaurant.''
Bay State communities requiring public eating places to provide areas for non-smokers include:
Newton and Lexington, a minimum of 15 percent of facilities for nonsmokers in places serving 50 or more patrons; Brookline and Stoughton, 25 percent space for 40 or more; and Somerville, Acton, and Amherst, 25 percent for 25 or more.
''GASP would prefer to have statewide antismoking legislation passed,'' Daynard says, ''but . . . it is too difficult to get such bills beyond committees. So in Massachusetts we have taken the tedious route to reaching our 351 towns and cities.''