The influence of smoking on the risk of developing ulcerative colitis is well documented. Compared with lifetime non-smokers, the risk is reduced in smokers and increased in ex-smokers. During the past 50 years general smoking habits have changed considerably. The proportions of smokers and ex-smokers among men and women have undergone significant changes and, consequently, probably also their risk of ulcerative colitis. A review of 56 earlier epidemiologic studies of ulcerative colitis from 1930 to 1990 showed that the sex distribution in ulcerative colitis has changed from an earlier female predominance that has now been replaced by a male predominance. In contemporary pediatric studies no such changes were seen. We propose that these changes in adults are not related to the disease per se but to an extrinsic factor affecting adults but not children--namely smoking.