At least 30 different phosphodiesterase (PDE) enzymes have now been identified in mammalian tissues and cells, many of which are products of separate genes. These different isoenzyme forms can be subdivided into seven families based on their genetic and functional characteristics. Relatively specific inhibitors are available for at least five of these PDE families. A functional classification based on substrate specificity, regulatory properties, and sensitivity to inhibition by isozyme- and tissue-selective inhibitors can be used in describing the PDEs of vascular smooth muscle. Inhibition of these PDEs, especially with inhibitors of the PDE3 isoform, promotes vascular relaxation, particularly if the preparation of smooth muscle has been preconracted. For the most part, the drugs appear to act directly on smooth muscle; their effects are usually observed in endothelium-denuded preparations. In addition to their cardiotonic properties, many PDE3 inhibitors possess antiplatelet and thrombolytic activities, thereby suggesting the potential benefit of these drugs in treating diseases of the cardiovascular system. Isozyme- and cell-specific drugs have been shown to alter the synthetic state (i.e. proliferative phenotype) of smooth muscle cultures toward the appearance of the contractile phenotype. This suggests the possible use of selective PDE inhibitors to minimize the problem of restenosis seen after angioplasty. The development of novel methods to deliver more potent and selective PDE inhibitors to individual cell types and subcellular locales will lead to new therapeutic uses for this class of drugs in diseases of the cardiovascular system.