In 1984, a prospective cohort study, Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) was initiated to investigate life-style and other factors that influence, favorably and unfavorably, the evolution of coronary heart disease risk factors during young adulthood. After a year of planning and protocol development, 5,116 black and white women and men, age 18-30 years, were recruited and examined in four urban areas: Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Oakland, California. The initial examination included carefully standardized measurements of major risk factors as well as assessments of psychosocial, dietary, and exercise-related characteristics that might influence them, or that might be independent risk factors. This report presents the recruitment and examination methods as well as the mean levels of blood pressure, total plasma cholesterol, height, weight and body mass index, and the prevalence of cigarette smoking by age, sex, race and educational level. Compared to recent national samples, smoking is less prevalent in CARDIA participants, and weight tends to be greater. Cholesterol levels are representative and somewhat lower blood pressures in CARDIA are probably, at least in part, due to differences in measurement methods. Especially noteworthy among several differences in risk factor levels by demographic subgroup, were a higher body mass index among black than white women and much higher prevalence of cigarette smoking among persons with no more than a high school education than among those with more education.