We examined whether a history of smoking is associated with an increased risk of death from any cause or from breast cancer, among women diagnosed with breast cancer. This was a prospective observational study among 5,056 women from the Nurses' Health Study with Stages I-III invasive breast cancer diagnosed between 1978 and 2002 and for whom we had information on smoking, and who were followed until January 2002 or death, whichever came first. Subjects were classified as current, former or never smokers based upon smoking status at the biennial questionnaire immediately preceding the breast cancer diagnosis. In multivariate-adjusted analyses, compared with never smokers, women who were current smokers had a 43% increased adjusted relative risk (RR) [95% confidence interval (95% CI): 1.24-1.65] of death from any cause. A strong linear gradient was observed with the number of cigarettes per day smoked, p-trend <0.0001; the RR (95% CI) for 1-14, 15-24 and 25 or more cigarettes per day was 1.27 (1.01-1.61), 1.30 (1.08-1.57) and 1.79 (1.47-2.19). In contrast, there was no association with current smoking and breast cancer death; the RR (95% CI) was 1.00 (0.83-1.19). Current and past smokers were more likely than never smokers to die from primary lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung diseases. We conclude that a history of smoking increased mortality following diagnosis with breast cancer, but did not increase mortality from breast cancer.