Cigarette smoking remains a substantial threat to the current and future health of America's youth. The purpose of this study was to identify the risk and protective factors for cigarette smoking among US adolescents. Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health was used, comparing the responses of all non-smokers at Time 1 for their ability to predict the likelihood of smoking at Time 2, one year later. Data was stratified into four gender by grade group cohorts. Cross-cutting risk factors for smoking among all four cohorts were: using alcohol, marijuana, and other illicit drugs; violence involvement; having had sex; having friends who smoke and learning problems. Having a higher grade point average and family connectedness were protective across all cohorts. Other gender and grade group specific risk and protective factors were identified. The estimated probability of initiating smoking decreased by 19.2% to 54.1% both in situations of high and low risk as the number of protective factors present increased. Of the factors that predict or protect against smoking some are influential across all gender and grade group cohorts studied, while others are specific to gender and developmental stage. Prevention efforts that target both the reduction of risk factors and enhancement of protective factors at the individual, family, peer group and community are likely to reduce the likelihood of smoking initiation.