Alterations in neutrophil functions by both chronic low levels of tobacco and by acute short-term higher levels of tobacco smoke, as encountered during the act of smoking, may play a role in the pathogenesis of periodontal diseases in smokers. Among the early migration events of neutrophil function is the alteration in surface expression of L-selectin and the CD11/18 integrins. In the present study we examined the effect of in vitro smoke exposure and nicotine alone on the expression of these 2 adhesion molecules in neutrophils from smokers and non-smokers. We also determined the physiological relevance of this in vitro system by assessing the levels of nicotine exposure in this in vitro system and comparing these levels to acute and chronic levels of nicotine in saliva and gingival crevicular fluid. Peripheral neutrophils were isolated from the blood of smokers (> 1 pack/d) and non-smokers and incubated in vitro with either cigarette smoke (0-5 min), 10(-7) M F-met-leu-phe, or nicotine alone at 1.62 mg/ml to 162 ng/ml (10(-2) M-10(-6) M). The neutrophils were then incubated with fluoresceine conjugated anti-Leu8 (L-selectin), anti-CD18 (CD18 integrin), or gamma-4 (non-specific control), fixed and analyzed by flow cytometry. With cigarette smoke exposure, there was an approximate 75% shedding of L-selectin in both smokers and non-smokers with no marked difference between groups at 1-5 min of smoke exposure. Cigarette smoke exposure resulted in a 15-20% increase in CD18 expression in both smokers and non-smokers. At all time points, there was slightly greater but statistically insignificant expression of CD18 integrin in non-smokers when compared to smokers. These patterns of CD18 increases and L-selectin shedding were similar in magnitude to incubations with 10(-7) M F-met-leu-phe. Acute smoke exposure resulted in elevation of nicotine in the smoke box to 529 ng/ml at 5 min, in saliva from 109.2 ng/ml before smoking to 1821.4 ng/ml after smoking, and in gingival crevicular fluid to 5961 ng/ml after smoking. No significant alterations in L-selectin or CD18 expression were noted with in vitro nicotine from 1.62 mg/ml to 162 ng/ml.