Human intervention trials have suggested that supplemental beta-carotene resulted in more cancer in smokers, whereas it was protective in non-smokers. However, the mechanisms underlying these effects are still unknown. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effects of an association of cigarette smoke condensate (tar) and beta-carotene on DNA oxidative damage and molecular pathways involved in cell cycle progression and apoptosis in cultured cells. In RAT-1 fibroblasts, tar caused increased levels of 8-hydroxyl-2'-deoxyguanosine (8-OHdG) and this effect was enhanced by the concomitant presence of beta-carotene (0.5-4.0 microM) in a dose- and time-dependent manner. In contrast, beta-carotene alone did not significantly modify it. Fibroblasts treated with tar alone decreased their cell growth with respect to control cells through an arrest of cell cycle progression in the G0/G1 phase and an induction of apoptosis. These effects were accompanied by an increased expression of p53, p21 and Bax and by a decreased expression of cyclin D1. In contrast, fibroblasts treated with tar and beta-carotene, after an initial arrest of cell growth at 12 h, re-entered in cell cycle and were unable to undergo apoptosis at 36 h. Concomitantly, their p53 expression, after an increase at 12 h, progressively returned at basal levels at 36 h by a mechanism independent of Mdm2. Such a decrease was followed by a decrease in p21 and Bax expression and by an increase in cyclin D1 expression. Moreover, the presence of the carotenoid remarkably enhanced cyclooxygenase-2 expression induced by tar. During tar treatment, a depletion of beta-carotene was observed in fibroblasts. The effects of tar and beta-carotene on 8-OHdG levels, cell growth and apoptosis were also observed in Mv1Lu lung, MCF-7 mammary, Hep-2 larynx and LS-174 colon cancer cells. This study supports the evidence for potential detrimental effects of an association between beta-carotene and cigarette smoke condensate.