Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is characterized by significant chronic inflammation in the pulmonary compartment as well as in the circulation. This study aimed to elucidate the relationship between local and systemic inflammation in smoking-induced COPD by assessing levels of soluble (s) tumor necrosis factor (TNF) receptors, TNF-alpha, and interleukin-8 (IL-8) in induced sputum and in plasma. Sputum induction was performed in 18 subjects with COPD (FEV(1) 56% predicted) and 17 healthy smokers (FEV(1) 99% predicted). Patients with COPD showed significantly higher percentages of neutrophils and levels of sTNF-R55 and IL-8 in sputum as compared with control subjects, whereas sputum sTNF-R75 levels tended to be higher in COPD. Sputum TNF-alpha levels were similar in both groups. When comparing sTNF receptors in sputum and plasma, no direct correlations were found despite elevation of circulating sTNF-R75 levels in patients with COPD. In addition, sputum sTNF receptors were inversely related to the FEV(1) in patients with COPD, whereas circulating sTNF receptors were not, suggesting different regulation of inflammation in the pulmonary and systemic compartment. When subjects were divided according to their current smoking status, levels of sTNF-R55, sTNF-R75, and IL-8 in sputum were significantly elevated in ex-smoking versus currently smoking patients with COPD, suggesting ongoing inflammation in airways and circulation of patients with COPD after smoking cessation.