Epithelial tumors develop through a multistep process driven by genomic instability frequently associated with etiologic agents such as prolonged tobacco smoke exposure or human papilloma virus (HPV) infection. The purpose of the studies reported here was to examine the nature of genomic instability in epithelial tissues at cancer risk in order to identify tissue genetic biomarkers that might be used to assess an individual's cancer risk and response to chemopreventive intervention. As part of several chemoprevention trials, biopsies were obtained from risk tissues (i.e., bronchial biopsies from chronic smokers, oral or laryngeal biopsies from individuals with premalignancy) and examined for chromosome instability using in situ hybridization. Nearly all biopsy specimens show evidence for chromosome instability throughout the exposed tissue. Increased chromosome instability was observed with histologic progression in the normal to tumor transition of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas. Chromosome instability was also seen in premalignant head and neck lesions, and high levels were associated with subsequent tumor development. In bronchial biopsies of current smokers, the level of ongoing chromosome instability correlated with smoking intensity (e.g., packs/day), whereas the chromosome index (average number of chromosome copies per cell) correlated with cumulative tobacco exposure (i.e., pack-years). Spatial chromosome analyses of the epithelium demonstrated multifocal clonal outgrowths. In former smokers, random chromosome instability was reduced; however, clonal populations appeared to persist for many years, perhaps accounting for continued lung cancer risk following smoking cessation.