In order to evaluate the effects of cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure on cellular immunity, we tested a group of cigarette smokers and asbestos workers for natural killer (NK) activity in the peripheral blood. The mean NK activity in cigarette smokers was lower than in normal subjects (13.7 +/- 1.6 versus 29.0 +/- 3%; p less than 0.05). As a group, the mean NK activity for the asbestos-exposed group was also reduced compared with that of the nonsmoking control group (22.6 +/- 3.2%; p less than 0.05). When divided according to the smoking status, the asbestos workers who were nonsmokers or ex-smokers showed similar decreases in NK activity compared with normal subjects (19.5 +/- 6.2 and 21.2 +/- 4.5%, respectively; p less than 0.05). A subgroup of asbestos-exposed subjects who currently smoked showed no decrease in NK activity. The data show that NK activity is reduced in the peripheral blood of cigarette smokers and asbestos workers. The relatively normal NK activity found in asbestos workers who also smoked is unexplained. Impairment of NK activity is a potential mechanism for the increased incidence of infection and cancer in smokers and neoplasia in asbestos workers.