Epidemiologic data indicate that cigarette smoking is associated with an important anti-estrogenic effect, and increased hepatic metabolism has been suggested as a possible mechanism. We examined the hypothesis that cigarette smoking in women induces an increase in estradiol 2-hydroxylation. This irreversible metabolic pathway yields 2-hydroxyestrogens, which possess minimal peripheral estrogenic activity and are cleared rapidly from the circulation. We found a significant increase in estradiol 2-hydroxylation in premenopausal women who smoked at least 15 cigarettes per day. The extent of the reaction (mean +/- SEM) was 53.6 +/- 2.2 percent among 14 smokers and 35.1 +/- 1.8 percent among 13 nonsmoking controls--an increase of approximately 50 percent (P less than 0.001). The extent of 2-hydroxylation among five smokers did not vary during the follicular and luteal phases of their menstrual cycles. In addition, urinary excretion of estriol relative to estrone was significantly decreased among smokers (P less than 0.01), providing evidence that the smoking-induced increase in 2-hydroxylation diminishes the competing metabolic pathway involving 16 alpha-hydroxylation. This study demonstrates that smoking exerts a powerful inducing effect on the 2-hydroxylation pathway of estradiol metabolism, which is likely to lead to decreased bioavailability at estrogen target tissues. Elucidation of the mechanism responsible for smoking-induced changes in 2-hydroxylation may be useful in the development of strategies to reduce the risk of hormone-dependent tumors.