Polymeric immunoglobulin receptor (pIgR) expression is downregulated in lung cancer, but its implications in lung tumourigenesis remain unknown. We hypothesised that loss of pIgR expression occurs early, and is associated with cell proliferation and poor prognosis. pIgR expression was evaluated by immunohistochemistry in airways of patients with normal mucosa, pre-invasive lesions and invasive lesions, and correlated with clinical outcomes. 16-HBE and A549 cells stably transfected with pIgR were tested for proliferation, apoptosis and cell cycle progression. Immunostaining was strong in normal epithelium, but severely reduced in pre-invasive lesions and most lung cancers. Persistent expression was associated with younger age and adenocarcinoma subtype but not survival. pIgR overexpression significantly reduced A549 and 16-HBE proliferation. Growth inhibition was not due to cell cycle arrest, increased apoptosis or endoplasmic reticulum stress, but we observed altered expression of genes encoding for membrane proteins, including NOTCH3. Interestingly, NOTCH3 expression was inversely correlated with pIgR expression in cell lines and tissues. pIgR expression was lost in most lung cancers and pre-invasive bronchial lesions, suggesting that pIgR downregulation is an early event in lung tumourigenesis. pIgR overexpression in A549 and 16-HBE cells inhibited proliferation. Future investigations are required to determine the mechanisms by which pIgR contributes to cell proliferation.