The influence of cigarette smoking on T cell subsets has been studied in white subjects, but comparable data are not available for blacks. We analyzed peripheral blood mononuclear cell subsets in a population-based, stratified, random sample of healthy black adults using monoclonal antibodies and flow cytometry. The study population consisted of 94 men and 79 women, including 73 smokers (CS) and 100 nonsmokers (NS). Cigarette smoking was associated with a significant elevation in leukocyte (WBC) count (CS 7,270 +/- 230 cells/mm3 versus NS 6,260 +/- 160 cells/mm3; p = 0.001), although WBC counts for both groups were substantially lower than those reported for white smokers and nonsmokers. Smokers had a significantly lower proportion of CD4+ cells than nonsmokers (CS 55.4 +/- 0.9% versus NS 58.7 +/- 0.9; p = 0.01), adjusting for age and gender. No significant smoking-related changes were observed for CD8+ cells, the CD4/CD8 ratio, or total T cells (CD3+), monocytes (CD14+), or natural killer cells (CD16+). Among black smokers, a significant dose-related decrease in CD4+ cells was observed as the number of cigarettes smoked per day increased. Among black exsmokers, the level of WBC and CD4+ cells returned to the level observed in never smokers within 2 to 5 yr after smoking cessation. These results contrast sharply with the previously reported increase in CD4+ cells and decrease in natural killer cells associated with cigarette smoking in whites. The data suggest that the immunologic effects of cigarette smoking may be significantly modified by ethnic characteristics.