To determine the accuracy of self-report of cigarette consumption among Mexican American smokers, we compared self-reported cigarette use and serum cotinine concentrations in a sample of 547 participants in the Hispanic Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (HHANES). We defined underreporting of cigarette use as a cotinine to cigarette-per-day ratio of greater than 0.142 microM/l which represented a substantial discrepancy between self-reported consumption and serum cotinine. Of the 98 men and 97 women who reported smoking one to nine cigarettes/day, 20.4 percent and 24.7 percent, respectively, underreported their cigarette consumption. Underreporting was less common among men and women smoking 10 to 19 cigarettes/day (8.3 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively) and 20 or more cigarettes/day (2.2 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively). Comparison of underreporters to other smokers by demographic characteristics within sex and cigarettes/day categories showed no differences. Differences in cotinine metabolism and extremely efficient smoking are alternative explanations that can not be ruled out with these data. We believe, however, that a proportion of Mexican American light smokers may underreport the quantity of cigarettes smoked per day, and may truly be moderate or heavy smokers.