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BACKGROUND: Coronary heart disease is the commonest cause of death in Northern Ireland, but few data exist on the incidence of risk factors in young adult students and non-students. AIM: To gather data on the prevalence of cigarette smoking and raised serum total cholesterol in a population of 18- to 20-year-old students and non-students. METHOD: Subjects were patients are Mountsandel Surgery, Coleraine on 1 January 1989 and were 18-20 years of age inclusive on that date. Subjects were interviewed by a research nurse who recorded socio-demographic data, tobacco consumption and random serum total cholesterol. Smoking status validation was by serum thiocyanate and expired air carbonmonoxide estimations. RESULTS: Out of the 832 subjects surveyed, 570 were students and 262 were non-students. Cigarettes were smoked by 239 (28.7%) subjects, and a significantly greater proportion of non-students compared with students were smokers (36.6% and 25.1%, respectively; P < 0.001). The proportion of males compared with females who smoked cigarettes was not significantly different, but males smoked significantly more cigarettes per day than females (14 and 11 cigarettes, respectively; P = 0.005). The average age for commencing regular cigarette smoking was 15.3 years, and 49.9% of smokers had started regular smoking by the age of 16 years. A greater proportion of non-students (65.7%) compared with students (39.2%) had started smoking before the age of 16 years. Out of those sampled, 156 (19.2%) had random serum cholesterol levels above 5.2 mmol l-1. Mean total cholesterol for non-students was significantly higher than for students (4.61 and 4.45 mmol l-1, respectively; P = 0.01) and increased significantly with increasing age (P = 0.03). Three subjects recorded cholesterol levels above 7.8 mmol l-1. CONCLUSION: Cigarette smoking and raised serum total cholesterol were prevalent among an apparently healthy population of students and non-students. These young adults may be significantly more at risk from subsequent coronary heart disease than was previously suspected.