Native Hawaiian smokers are at higher risk and Japanese-American smokers at lower risk of lung cancer (LC), compared with white smokers, even after accounting for smoking history. Because variation in carcinogen exposure/metabolism may occur separately of smoking amount, we compared urinary biomarkers of uptake and detoxification of 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK)-a potent lung carcinogen-among 578 smokers in these ethnic/racial groups in Hawaii. We measured the NNK metabolite 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanol (NNAL) and its glucuronide (NNAL-Gluc) and examined total NNAL (NNAL + NNAL-Gluc) and the NNAL detoxification ratio (NNAL-Gluc:NNAL). Native Hawaiians and Japanese-Americans had lower age- and sex-adjusted mean total NNAL, compared with whites. When further adjusting for urinary nicotine equivalents (the sum of nicotine, cotinine, trans-3'-hydroxycotinine and their respective glucuronides), only the difference between Japanese-Americans and whites was eliminated. Therefore, consistent with their lower LC risk, a lower cigarette smoke exposure explains the lower NNK dose of Japanese-Americans, but it does not explain that of Native Hawaiians. The mean detoxification ratio was also lower in Native Hawaiians and Japanese-Americans, compared with whites, even after adjusting for nicotine equivalents (p < 0.0001). Lower NNAL glucuronidation in Native Hawaiians might contribute to their increased LC risk; however, this is inconsistent with the low glucuronidation ratio similarly observed in the low-risk Japanese-American group and because Native Hawaiians had lower total NNAL levels. Thus, exposure and detoxification of NNK are unlikely to explain, by themselves, the differences in LC risk among the 3 populations studied.