US WEST Communications Inc. has begun enforcing a new smoking ban in its 2,900 buildings, including about 400 offices in Colorado.

Company officials said smoking will no longer be allowed in any of its buildings, nor at sites it rents for employee meetings.The policy is designed to protect the health of its 57,500 phone company employees in 14 Western states as well as eliminate the cost of providing smoking lounges, company officials said.

At the same time, US WEST is offering to reimburse employees up to $150 if they enroll in programs to end smoking.

About 26 percent of the company's employees smoke, said US WEST spokeswoman Debbie Thomas.

US WEST Communications - the telephone services unit of US WEST Inc. of Englewood - employes nearly 12,000 workers in Colorado, including some 9,800 in the Denver metropolitan area alone.

Besides company facilities in Colorado, the ban went into effect Monday at locations in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Smoking already was prohibited at company sites in the seven other states where US WEST operates.

"The bottom line is there's so much evidence that secondary smoke is harmful to those who don't smoke that this is the way to go," Thomas said.

The ban drew immediate criticism from the Communications Workers of America. A spokesman said the ban could become an issue in talks on a new labor contract, scheduled to begin next month.

Mark Belkin, a spokesman for Communications Workers of America Local 7777, which represents 6,500 US WEST workers, is concerned the ban will be enforced unequally between hourly workers and corporate officers.

"We hope to monitor the situation to make sure the company enforces things in an equitable fashion," Belkin said. "The question is whether they're concerned about productivity or whether it's a means to control people's individual choices."

All the corporate concern failed to convince die-hard smokers of the danger.

Clustered in twos and threes Monday, sitting outside the downtown Denver building Monday, a contingent of employees grabbed a puff.

"I like to smoke, and I'll quit when I want to, not because of some rule," said Jan Charles, a 16-year employee of the phone company and a 17-year smoker.