Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the development of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). A long-term latent process often precedes the onset of arthritis. Hence, the ultimate causes of RA cannot be clarified by studying only the inflamed joints. Longitudinal studies focusing on risk factors are crucial in approaching the true aetiology. At present, most information gained from epidemiological studies is contradictory or vague. For instance, there is no consensus concerning the long-term effects of pregnancy or the putative protective role of oral contraceptives. There is no doubt that diet plays a role, but no specific nutrient has proved to be either protective or deleterious. Smoking is the only environmental risk factor that has been firmly verified epidemiologically for RA. It can be reasonably regarded as a contributory cause of RA. Studying the immunological effects of exposure to cigarette smoke may offer an opportunity to combine information from basic and epidemiological research to clarify the causal chains leading to RA.