In a survey of a healthy population (n = 197), LDL cholesterol, plasma triglycerides and VLDL triglycerides were found to be substantially increased and plasma HDL cholesterol decreased in smokers. The lipid-associated atherogenic risk in smokers as assessed by the LDL/HDL ratio was significantly higher [2.89 (SD 1.18, n = 63)] than in non-smokers [2.38 (SD 0.98, n = 86) P < 0.01]. The lower HDL level found in smokers was explained by a lower HDL-2 subfraction as determined by analytical ultracentrifugation. HDL 2b, 2a and 3a, measured by gradient gel electrophoresis, were all lower in the smokers but this was only significant for HDL 2a. Smoking had no effect on Lp(a) levels. HDL cholesterol and HDL-2 were strongly negatively correlated whereas LDL cholesterol and LDL/HDL ratio were strongly positively correlated with the plasma triglyceride concentration. There was a small but significant reduction in plasma CETP activity [non-smokers 49% t/microliter (SD 17, n = 90), smokers 43% t/microliter (SD 17, n = 66) P < 0.05] but CETP activity was not correlated with any measure of HDL in this population. Smoking was found to be an important independent contributor to the variation in plasma triglyceride, HDL, HDL-2 and LDL/HDL ratio. After correcting for sex, age, BMI, alcohol consumption, oral contraceptive use and plasma triglycerides smoking was still found to be significantly associated with HDL and the LDL/HDL ratio. Upon adjustment for covariant factors the mean differences between smokers and non-smokers for HDL cholesterol, HDL-2 and LDL/HDL were 0.15 mM, 16 mg dl-1 and 0.39 respectively. There appeared to be important sex differences in the influence of smoking on plasma lipoproteins. In women the main impact of smoking was on triglyceride levels and they in turn affected LDL and HDL. In contrast, in men, smoking had little impact on triglycerides and affected HDL more directly. We conclude that smoking cigarettes has an important effect on plasma lipoprotein metabolism through multiple mechanisms.