The identification of individuals who are at greatest risk of developing lung cancer would greatly improve diagnosis and possibly lead to early treatment. To study the use of karyotypes for this purpose, we used short-term human bronchial epithelial (hBE) cell cultures from nonsmokers, smokers, and lung cancer patients. Twenty-five metaphases were scored for hBE cell cultures obtained from 32 patients: 8 were nonsmokers, and 24 had a history of smoking (of whom 11 had had lung cancer surgery). The number of abnormal metaphases ranged from 0 to 4 per cell culture. No overall differences in the number of abnormal metaphases were observed between nonsmokers and smokers or between lung cancer patients and non-lung cancer patients. The most commonly observed abnormalities were structural changes in chromosome 1 (six cultures), loss of chromosome 17 (six cultures), and trisomy of chromosome 20 (three cultures). These specific alterations were found almost exclusively in patients with a history of tobacco smoking. The results did not indicate that general chromosomal abnormalities are a useful marker for tobacco smoke exposure or cancer risk.