To investigate the relationship between airflow limitation and airway inflammation in smokers, we examined paraffin-embedded bronchial biopsies obtained from 30 smokers: 10 with severe airflow limitation, eight with mild/moderate airflow limitation, and 12 control smokers with normal lung function. Histochemical and immunohistochemical methods were performed to assess the number of inflammatory cells in the subepithelium and the expression of CC chemokines macrophage inflammatory protein (MIP)-1alpha and -1beta in the bronchial mucosa. Compared with control smokers, smokers with severe airflow limitation had an increased number of neutrophils (p < 0.02), macrophages (p < 0.03), and NK lymphocytes (p < 0.03) in the subepithelium, and an increased number of MIP-1alpha+ epithelial cells (p < 0.02). When all smokers were considered together, the value of FEV1 was inversely correlated with the number of neutrophils (r = -0.59, p < 0.002), macrophages (r = -047, p < 0. 012), NK-lymphocytes (r = -0.51, p < 0.006) in the subepithelium, and with the number of MIP-1alpha+ epithelial cells (r = -0.61, p < 0.003). We conclude that in smokers the severity of airflow limitation is correlated with the severity of airway inflammation and that severe airflow limitation is associated with an increased number of neutrophils, macrophages, NK lymphocytes, and MIP-1alpha+ cells in the bronchial mucosa.