Neutrophils may play a part in the pathogenesis of the centrilobular emphysema associated with cigarette smoking. The capillary bed of the lungs concentrates neutrophils approximately 100-fold with respect to erythrocytes, producing a large pool of marginated cells. We examined the effect of cigarette smoking on the kinetics of this pool of cells, using 99mTc-labeled erythrocytes to measure regional blood velocity and 111In-labeled neutrophils to measure the removal of neutrophils during the first passage through the pulmonary circulation, their subsequent washout from the lungs, and the effect of local blood velocity on the number of neutrophils retained in each lung region. We observed no difference in these measurements between subjects who had never smoked (n = 6) and smokers who did not smoke during the study (n = 12). However, subjects who did smoke during the study (n = 12) had a significantly slower rate of washout of radiolabeled neutrophils from the lung (0.08 +/- 0.04 of the total per minute, as compared with 0.13 +/- 0.06 in smokers who did not smoke during the experiment and 0.14 +/- 0.08 in non-smokers) (P = 0.02). We also observed an increase in the regional retention of labeled neutrophils with respect to blood velocity in 5 of the 12 subjects who smoked during the study, but in none of the other subjects. We conclude that the presence of cigarette smoke in the lungs of some subjects increases the local concentration of neutrophils, and suggest that the lesions that characterize emphysema may be a result of the destruction of lung tissue by neutrophils that remain within pulmonary microvessels.