Inflammatory cells are believed to play an important role in the pathogenesis of emphysema; however, a relationship between presence of cells in the lung parenchyma and its destruction has never been shown. The aim of this study was to quantitate alveolar septal cellularity in smokers' lungs and to investigate its relationship with parenchymal destruction and lung function. The lungs of 23 smokers (SS) undergoing thoracotomy for localized pulmonary lesions were compared with those of eight nonsmokers (NS) and five smokers (AS) who died suddenly of nonrespiratory causes. Pulmonary function tests were performed within 1 wk of surgery in SS. For each subject, we quantitated alveolar wall cells (CELLS), an index of alveolar wall destruction (DI), and the mean linear intercept (Lm). As no significant differences were found between S and AS with regard to these indices, we combined them (Group S) for comparison with NS. Although Lm was not significantly different between S and NS, (0.331 +/- 0.072 versus 0.288 +/- 0.038), CELLS and DI were higher in S than in NS (48 +/- 8 versus 25 +/- 2 cells/mm, p less than 0.001; 47 +/- 20 versus 17 +/- 5, p less than 0.001, respectively). Further, CELLS and DI were significantly correlated (r = 0.799, p less than 0.001). The number of polymorphonuclear cells (PMN) in S can exceed that in NS by as much as 5-fold; however, PMN were inversely correlated with parenchymal destruction (DI) (r = 0.598, p less than 0.01). Thus, smokers' lungs have alveolar septal hypercellularity, possibly inflammatory, and closely related to destruction involving cells other than the PMN.