We assessed the impact of smoking cessation on subsequent death rates among a cohort of 51,343 men and 66,751 women in California enrolled in late 1959 in the original American Cancer Society (ACS) Cancer Prevention Study (CPS I) and followed for 38 years. We compared the age-adjusted death rate, expressed as deaths per 1,000 person-years, among all subjects who smoked cigarettes in 1959 but who had largely quit as of 1997 with the death rate among never smokers over a 38-year period. The all causes death rate for males decreased from 20.67 during 1960-1969 to 18.68 during 1960-1997 for smokers and decreased from 10.51 to 9.46 for never smokers. The lung cancer death rate for males increased from 1.558 to 1.728 for smokers and increased from 0.127 to 0.133 for never smokers. The all causes death rate for females increased from 9.54 to 10.14 for smokers and decreased from 6.95 to 6.44 for never smokers. The lung cancer death rate for females increased greatly from 0.208 to 0.806 for smokers and increased from 0.094 to 0.116 for never smokers. These results indicate there has been no important decline in either the absolute or relative death rates from all causes and lung cancer for cigarette smokers as a whole compared with never smokers in this large cohort, in spite of a substantial degree of smoking cessation. While cessation clearly reduces the mortality risk among long-term former smokers, the population impact of cessation appears to be less than currently believed.