Telomerase plays an important role in the maintenance of telomere ends in normal and tumor cells and ectopic expression can immortalize human bronchial epithelial (HBE) cells. We assessed telomerase activation, growth properties and methylation status in the hTERT promoter in a panel of HBE cell cultures in relation to smoking and previous lung cancer history. HBE cells were obtained from a total of 26 subjects, six of whom were lifelong non-smokers, while 20 subjects had a smoking history, including seven who had lung carcinoma. Telomerase activity was determined using the telomeric repeat amplification protocol (TRAP). Maximum passage number and time to senescence were also determined through extended culturing. The distribution of the telomerase activity between ever-smokers and never-smokers was significantly different (P=0.03, F-test), and there was a strong correlation between telomerase activity and the number of pack-years smoked (P=0.0012, F-test for slope). A small difference in telomerase activity was observed according to lung cancer status (P=0.02, F-test). Telomerase activity was not correlated with maximum passage number after extended culturing or with time to senescence. None of the HBE cultures demonstrated methylation of the hTERT promoter. Our results indicate an association between tobacco carcinogen exposure and telomerase activity in normal bronchial epithelium, although a causative role of tobacco smoking in the (re)activation of telomerase can not be proven. An increase in telomerase activity in normal bronchial epithelium might extend the lifespan of cells at risk for malignant transformation, and thus contribute to lung carcinogenesis.