Elastinolytic enzymes derived from alveolar macrophages (AM) are considered to play an important role in the development of emphysema associated with cigarette smoking. In this study, the enzyme activity and mRNA expression of cathepsin L were quantitated in AM and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid obtained from current smokers and compared with those from nonsmokers. Activity was measured with the synthetic substrate Z-Phe-Arg-MCA combined with a novel cathepsin B inhibitor, CA-074. We found that the specific activity of cathepsin L was significantly elevated in BAL cells from smokers (7.1 +/- 0.7 mumol/mg protein/h, mean +/- SEM) compared with cells from nonsmokers (2.9 +/- 0.3) (p < 0.01). The expression of cathepsin L mRNA in BAL cells as determined by dot-blot analysis was also higher in BAL cells from smokers, which was comparable to the increase in the enzyme activity. About 5 to 6% of the specific activity of cathepsin L in BAL cell lysates was detected in unconcentrated BAL fluid; specific activity was also significantly higher in samples from smokers (0.38 +/- 0.04 mumol/mg protein/h) than from nonsmokers (0.14 +/- 0.02). In addition, procathepsin L (42 kD) and the mature form of cathepsin L (33 kD) were demonstrated in BAL fluid by immunoblot analyses. These data suggest that cigarette smoking induces mRNA expression and the synthesis of cathepsin L in AM and the release of procathepsin from AM into extracellular milieu. Furthermore, increased activity levels of cathepsin L in extracellular compartments may contribute to the proteolysis of elastin in the process of lung destruction associated with cigarette smoking.