Apoptosis provides a mechanism for clearance of unwanted cells in a variety of situations in which programmed or physiological cell death occurs; but the premature death of defensive cells could promote infection, inflammation and concomitant disease. We detected high values of apoptosis in polymorphonuclear cells (PMN) elicited from crevicular sulci of smokers affected by adult periodontitis. To learn more about the effects of nicotine on the periodontal environment, we studied its ability to modulate the apoptosis of two phagocytic lines, PMN and mononuclear cells, which are continuously recruited from gingival vessels to prevent or control plaque extension. Brief exposure of PMN to nicotine concentrations ranging from 0.01 to 0.3% shortened, in a dose-dependent relationship, the lag culture time required to observe at fluorescent microscopy the morphological traces of apoptosis. These observations were confirmed by specific tools of apoptosis: DNA fragmentation on gel electrophoresis and expression of the apoptosis-signaling receptor Fas/Apo-1. The apoptotic effect excited by nicotine on these first line defensive cells may be an important feature of the pathogenesis of periodontal disease. As for mononuclear leukocytes, nicotine was unable to induce apoptotic modifications on cells observed up to 72 h culture time, but the drug inhibited IL-1beta release and procoagulant activity (PCA) expression. The conflicting role played by these lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced monocyte functions in the inflammatory process is a further intrigue in the mechanism by which nicotine compromises the oral health.