IUATLD initiatives in non-tuberculous lung disease developed in the late 1970s, coincident with improving tuberculosis control, and have targeted acute respiratory infections in children and chronic airways disease in adults and in children. The focus has been on methodology and the tools required to document the distribution and determinants of disease, and is illustrated in data gathered in African populations. Instruments developed include a simplified method of measuring bronchial hyper-reactivity and an asthma questionnaire Non-standard methods of questionnaire administration have also been validated, methods which are appropriate for use in the burgeoning urban communities and workforces of sub-Saharan Africa made up of rural migrants from different tribes and language groups. In addition, a review of reference values available for interpreting lung function in sub-Saharan African populations indicates a need to take into account a secular trend over the last two decades towards higher spirometric values. In the published data from Africa, not inconsiderable between-country differences are evident in the prevalence of chronic bronchitis in adults and of asthma in children. In addition, rates for childhood asthma were consistently higher in urban vs rural communities, with environmental factors playing an important role as well as being locally specific. Not only does the burden of morbidity attributable to both the chronic airway diseases reviewed justify past IUATLD initiatives in non-tuberculous lung disease, but it also argues that future initiatives should focus on investigating between- and within-country differences using a standardized methodology, with a view to identifying local environmental determinants susceptible to intervention and control. Curbing tobacco use is clearly important, not only to benefit the health of adult smokers for whom the ill-health consequences have long been recognized, but, and more important, to protect the health of children, born and unborn, with whom they share the environment.