Smoking protects against ulcerative colitis (UC), and treatment with nicotine patches has a beneficial symptomatic effect in patients with UC. To find an explanation for this response to nicotine in UC, we assessed the effects of nicotine on cytokine production by mononuclear cells (MNC). MNC were isolated from peripheral blood from healthy volunteers. Non-adherent MNC were preincubated with varying concentrations of nicotine or prednisolone for 24 h followed by addition of phytohemagglutinin (10 micrograms/ml). The concentrations of interleukin 2 (IL-2) and tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha) in the supernatants were determined by ELISA. Nicotine as well as prednisolone caused a significant inhibition of IL-2 and TNF alpha production. The maximum inhibition caused by nicotine was about 50% of that caused by prednisolone and was reached at concentrations equivalent to nicotine levels measured in plasma of smokers. These results indicate that nicotine exerts its immunoregulatory role through modulation of the cytokine production by non-adherent mononuclear cells.