COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a major incurable global health burden and will become the third largest cause of death in the world by 2020. It is currently believed that an exaggerated inflammatory response to inhaled irritants, in particular cigarette smoke, causes progressive airflow limitation. This inflammation, where macrophages, neutrophils and T-cells are prominent, leads to oxidative stress, emphysema, small airways fibrosis and mucus hypersecretion. The mechanisms and mediators that drive the induction and progression of chronic inflammation, emphysema and altered lung function are poorly understood. Current treatments have limited efficacy in inhibiting chronic inflammation, do not reverse the pathology of disease and fail to modify the factors that initiate and drive the long-term progression of disease. Therefore there is a clear need for new therapies that can prevent the induction and progression of COPD. Animal modelling systems that accurately reflect disease pathophysiology continue to be essential to the development of new therapies. The present review highlights some of the mouse models used to define the cellular, molecular and pathological consequences of cigarette smoke exposure and whether they can be used to predict the efficacy of new therapeutics for COPD.