Nicotine's discriminative stimulus effects may be critical to understanding reinforcement of tobacco smoking. It is not known whether regular nicotine exposure produces tolerance or sensitivity to these effects. In this study, male and female smokers (n = 11) and never-smokers (n = 10) were trained to discriminate 20 micrograms/kg nicotine by nasal spray from placebo (0) on day 1. On day 2, both groups were tested on generalization of this discrimination across intermittent presentations of 0, 3, 6, 12, and 20 micrograms/kg nicotine in random order. Quantitative and quantal behavioral discrimination tasks, used in previous research, were employed. On day 3, subjects were instructed to self-administer sprays from the 20 micrograms/kg nicotine versus 0 bottles in a concurrent-choice procedure. All but one subject (female smoker) learned reliably to discriminate 20 micrograms/kg nicotine from placebo (> or = 80% correct) on day 1. Nicotine-appropriate responding on day 2 was attenuated in smokers versus never-smokers at 20 micrograms/kg on the quantitative task and at 12 micrograms/kg on the quantal task, suggesting tolerance. There was no difference in responding at other doses. Smokers also showed attenuated responses on the subjective measure of "head rush", which was associated with discrimination responding in both groups. Nicotine self-administration was significantly greater in smokers versus never-smokers, who self-administered nicotine below chance levels, and was inversely related to discrimination behavior in never-smokers but unrelated in smokers. Women smokers showed less change in nicotine-appropriate responding across generalization doses, reported less confidence in discriminating training doses during acquisition on day 1, and tended to self-administer less nicotine on day 3. These results indicate that smokers may become tolerant to the discriminative stimulus effects of nicotine, perhaps promoting increased use.