Epidemiological studies have demonstrated a causal association between tobacco use and carcinoma of the lung, and some genetic targets of the carcinogens in cigarette smoke have been defined recently. We further examined the effect of cigarette smoking on the frequency of allelic losses on chromosome 9p21 and the incidence of p16 inactivation. Chromosomal loss at 9p21-24 was determined by microsatellite analysis using 14 markers in 47 patients with non-small cell lung cancer. In addition, p16 gene inactivation was determined by DNA sequence analysis, methylation-specific PCR, and immunohistochemistry. Tumors from a group of nonsmokers (n = 14) were compared with tumors from a group of smokers (n = 33) matched for cell type, tumor stage, and gender. Allelic loss encompassing the p16 locus was present significantly (P = 0.01) more often in smokers (23 of 33 smokers, 70%) than in nonsmokers (4 of 14 nonsmokers, 28%). No significant differences in the frequency of p16 inactivation were observed between smokers and nonsmokers (45% versus 36%). However, homozygous deletion of the p16 gene locus and point mutation of p16 gene were only observed in tumors from smokers, whereas the p16 gene was inactivated in tumors from nonsmokers only through promoter hypermethylation. Thus, inactivation of the p16 gene is a common event in all non-small cell lung cancer, but the mechanism of gene alteration differs between smokers and nonsmokers. The significant link between tobacco and loss of the p16 locus identifies additional genetic targets of smoking in the pathogenesis of lung cancer.