That bronchial carcinoma is not an inevitable consequence of cigarette smoking has stimulated the search for host factors that might influence the susceptibility of the individual smoker. One plausible host factor would be a polymorphic gene controlling the metabolic oxidative activation of chemical carcinogens, giving rise to wide inter-subject variation in the generation of cancer-inducing and/or promoting species. Recently, three genetic polymorphisms of human metabolic oxidation have been demonstrated (as characterized by debrisoquine, mephenytoin and carbocysteine), with the metabolism of several substrates exhibiting the phenomenon. Debrisoquine 4-hydroxylation segregates into two human phenotypes, each comprising characteristic metabolic capability. We report here the frequency of debrisoquine 4-hydroxylation phenotypes in age-, sex- and smoking history-matched bronchial carcinoma and control patients. Cancer patients showed a preponderance of probable homozygous dominant extensive metabolizers (78.8%) with few recessive poor metabolizers (1.6%) compared with smoking controls (27.8% and 9.0% respectively). We conclude that the gene controlling debrisoquine 4-hydroxylation may be a host genetic determinant of susceptibility to lung cancer in smokers and that it represents a marker to assist in assessing individual risk.