Small airway remodeling (SAR) is an important cause of airflow obstruction in cigarette smokers, but whether SAR represents a response to smoke-evoked inflammation or is directly mediated by smoke-induced growth factor production is disputed. To examine this process, we exposed rat tracheal explants, a model free of exogenous inflammatory cells, to cigarette smoke in vitro. Cigarette smoke caused release of active transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta1, and this was prevented by the oxidant scavenger tetramethythiourea. Nuclear immunostaining for phospho-Smad2, a TGF-beta downstream signaling molecule, was present in epithelial and interstitial cells within 1 h after exposure. Smoke caused upregulation of gene expression of connective tissue growth factor (CTGF), a mediator of TGF-beta fibrogenic effects, within 2 h, and upregulation of procollagen gene expression at 24 h; both changes could be prevented by the TGF-beta antagonist fetuin (alpha2-HS-glycoprotein). In a cell-free system, recombinant human TGF-beta latency-associated peptide was oxidized by cigarette smoke, and smoke released active TGF-beta1 from recombinant latent TGF-beta1 via an oxidant mechanism. These experiments suggest that SAR in cigarette smokers may be caused by direct, smoke-mediated, oxidant-driven induction of growth factor signaling in the airway wall, and that SAR does not necessarily require exogenous inflammatory cells.