A restriction fragment length polymorphism in codon 72 of the p53 gene has been implicated in lung cancer risk, although the functional significance of the polymorphism has not been determined. This association was examined in 109 lung cancer cases (67 African-American and 42 Mexican-American) and 114 controls (74 African-American and 40 Mexican-American) identified from a molecular epidemiological study of lung cancer. The susceptible Pro/Pro genotype was associated with a 1.56-fold higher risk of lung cancer in African-Americans and a 1.95-fold in Mexican-Americans, although neither estimate was statistically significant. In fact, the prevalence of the Pro/Pro genotype was only 2.5% in Mexican-American controls, compared with 20.3% for African-American controls. Patients with the susceptible genotype appeared to have earlier age at diagnosis and lower mean cigarette pack-year exposures than did patients with the Arg/Arg or Arg/Pro genotypes. Risk estimates for the susceptible genotype were 11.29 (1.1, 111.3) for patients < 53 years of age and 14.1 (1.5, 130.6) for patients who reported < 30 pack-years of smoking. The Pro/Pro genotype was not associated with elevated risk in older patients, nor with heavier smokers. If Pro/Pro is a susceptible genotype, the lower prevalence evident in Mexican-Americans may partly explain their lower rates of lung cancer.