Lung cancer mortality rates in Xuan Wei County, which are among the highest in China, have previously been associated with exposure to indoor emissions from burning smoky coal. To determine if this association is stronger among lung cancer patients with abnormal expression of p53, we performed a population-based case-control study. Ninety-seven newly diagnosed lung cancer patients and 97 controls, individually matched by age, sex, and home fuel type, were enrolled. We used immunocytochemical methods to assess p53 protein accumulation in exfoliated tumor cells isolated from sputum samples. As expected, the amount of lifetime smoky coal use was associated with an overall increase in lung cancer risk. Compared with subjects who used less than 130 tons of smoky coal during their lifetime, the odds ratios (OR) for lung cancer were 1.48 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.73 to 3.02) for subjects exposed to 130 to 240 tons, and 3.21 (95% CI, 1.23 to 9.03) for subjects who used more than 240 tons of smoky coal (P for trend 0.01). The effect was due almost exclusively to the pattern in women, almost all of whom were nonsmokers. Further, among highly exposed women, the association was substantially larger and achieved statistical significance only among patients with sputum samples that were positive for p53 overexpression (OR, 18.72; 95% CI, 1.77 to 383.38 vs OR, 4.80; 95% CI, 0.66 to 43.87 for p53-negative cases). This study suggests that exposure to the combustion products of smoky coal in Xuan Wei is more strongly associated with women who have lung cancer accompanied by p53 protein overexpression in exfoliated tumor cells.