The objective of this study was to determine the rate of the decline in risk of a major coronary event after quitting cigarette smoking. It was a population-based case-control study of men and women aged 35 to 69 years in Newcastle, Australia, and men and women aged 35 to 64 years in Auckland, New Zealand, between 1986 and 1994. Cases were 5,572 people identified in population registers of coronary events and controls were 6,268 participants in independent community-based risk factor prevalence surveys from the same study populations. There was a rapid reduction in risk after quitting cigarette smoking. The risk of suffering a major coronary event for men who were current cigarette smokers was 3.5 (95% CI 3.0-4.0) times higher than the risk for never smokers but this fell to 1.5 (95% CI 1.1-1.9) for men who had quit for 1-3 years. Women who were current cigarette smokers were 4.8 (95% CI 4.0-5.9) times more likely to suffer a major coronary event than never smokers and this fell to 1.6 (95% CI 1.0-2.5) for women who had quit for 1-3 years. Those who had quit cigarette smoking for 4-6 years or more had a similar risk to never smokers. These results reinforce the importance of smoking cessation. The public health message is that the benefit of giving up smoking occurs rapidly.