Subjects enrolled in studies are not always screened for routine habits such as smoking. Personal history is not always reliable and therefore an objective biomarker is necessary to screen for smokers. The objectives of this article were to review the metabolism of nicotine and other metabolic considerations associated with smoking; to review some of the routine methods used to assess exposure to nicotine-containing products; to revisit cotinine breakpoints utilized to distinguish smokers from non-smokers during screening for clinical trials; to assess the utility of screening questions regarding smoking practices; and to recommend standards for clinical pharmacology studies. The results indicated that cotinine levels serve as a useful biomarker of tobacco exposure; racial issues may be clinically relevant in determining smoking status; cessation of smoking should occur at least 14 days prior to the start of the study; adverse effects from nicotine withdrawal such as craving, hunger and weight gain may persist for more than 6 months; potential metabolic interactions via cytochrome P2A6 and P1A2 need to be considered when designing a study; and the use of a single calibrator as a breakpoint is acceptable if a categorical outcome such as 'smoker' versus 'non-smoker' is desired. Nicotine from food products is not expected to impact assay sensitivity or to be clinically relevant; a serum cotinine concentration of 10 ng ml(-1) be employed as a breakpoint for non-smokers versus smokers; other non-invasive alternatives are collection of urine, saliva, or hair (with suggested breakpoints of 200 ng ml(-1), 5 ng ml(-1) and 0.3 ng mg(-1), respectively; screening questions be accompanied by testing for cotinine; and the inclusion of smokers in studies should be considered once the impact of smoking on the targeted population is understood.