Cytochrome CYP1A2, a liver enzyme responsible for the metabolic activation of a number of putative human carcinogens, exhibits wide inter-individual differences in activity. In order to characterize sources of variability in CYP1A2 activity, we phenotyped (with the caffeine test) 90 subjects of various ethnic backgrounds in Hawaii. Forty-three subjects were patients with in-situ colorectal cancer treated by polypectomy and 47 were healthy population controls. Subjects were also administered a detailed lifestyle questionnaire, including a quantitative food frequency questionnaire, and were assessed for plasma levels of carotenoids, tocopherols, retinol, ascorbic acid, cholesterol and triglycerides. In a stepwise multiple regression, 27% of the overall variation in CYP1A2 activity was explained by seven variables. Plasma lutein explained the largest portion of the variance (7%) and was negatively associated with CYP1A2 activity (p < 0.01), as were use of menopausal replacement estrogens (p = 0.04), plasma alpha-tocopherol (p = 0.05) and alcohol consumption (p = < 0.01). Acetaminophen use (p = 0.05), coffee consumption (p = 0.05) and plasma lycopene (p = 0.06) were positively associated with CYP1A2 activity. After adjustment for these variables, no association was found between CYP1A2 activity and sex, race, age, education, smoking, physical activity, weight, vitamin E supplements, the other plasma micronutrients measured, and dietary intakes of red meat, processed meat and cruciferous vegetables. Results were similar for colorectal cancer cases and controls. Almost two-thirds (73%) of the variability in CYP1A2 activity remained unexplained. This study confirms an enhancing effect of acetaminophen and coffee on CYP1A2 activity and suggests and inhibitory effect of estrogens, alcohol and food sources of lutein and alpha-tocopherol on this enzyme.