The cytotoxic effect of cigarette smoke condensate on human polymorphs was investigated in vitro by the method of vital dye exclusion. Exposure to 1/800 of the smoke from one high-tar cigarette killed a detectable proportion of a population of 10(6) cells. The response among the cells from 40 healthy people varied widely, the percentage of dead cells ranging from 3% to 66% and from 17% to 87% at exposure levels of 125 micrograms and 250 micrograms cigarette smoke condensate respectively. Differences in individuals' responses were reproducible and unrelated to age or sex or smoking habit. The cells from 10 patients with irreversible obstructive airways disease and probable emphysema were significantly more sensitive than those from 10 patients with no respiratory disability matched for age and smoking habits. Genetically influenced variation in cellular response to cytotoxicity may be an important determinant of the risk of developing emphysema among smokers.