Cotton textile workers have an increased prevalence of both obstructive and restrictive lung function patterns when compared to control subjects. Similar abnormal lung function patterns may occur with other respiratory diseases, notably those associated with cigarette smoking. The shape of the maximum expiratory flow volume (MEFV) curve has been used to characterize patterns of lung function abnormality. We defined a new functional parameter (angle beta) related to the shape of the MEFV curve in order better to characterize the respiratory effects of cotton dust exposure. In this study, 477 cotton textile workers, both current smokers and never smokers 45 years and older, were compared to 932 similarly aged control subjects from three communities: Lebanon and Ansonia, CT, and Winnsboro, SC. Smokers, regardless of their occupational exposure of sex, have smaller values of beta than do nonsmokers. Cotton textile workers who have more abnormal lung function than do controls, cannot be distinguished from controls by beta. We suggest that such functional differences between cotton and smoking effects may reflect injury to different portions of the bronchial tree.