Studies of placental pathologies associated with maternal cigarette smoking have led to many interesting observations. For example, maternal smoking impairs human placental development by changing the balance between cytotrophoblast (CTB) proliferation and differentiation. It is likely that chronic exposure to tobacco constituents in early pregnancy can affect placental development directly or indirectly by reducing blood flow, which creates a pathologically hypoxic environment. To understand this process at a molecular level, tissue samples from non-smoking and smoking mothers were studied to determine whether active and/or passive cigarette smoke exposure affects CTB expression of molecules that govern cellular responses to oxygen tension: the von Hippel-Lindau tumor suppressor protein (pVHL), hypoxia-inducible transcription factors (HIFs) and vascular endothelial growth factor-A (VEGF). The results show that maternal smoking dysregulates CTB expression of all three types of molecules. In addition, cell columns and proliferating cells were reduced while there was a corresponding increase in cell islands. All three phenomena were most obvious in the placentas of heavy smokers. Interestingly, a subset of the aforementioned effects can be detected in samples obtained from women who were passively exposed to cigarette smoke during pregnancy. These observations suggest that tobacco constituents exert direct effects on CTB proliferation and differentiation and help to explain the mechanisms by which smoking negatively effects human pregnancy outcome.