Lung cancer is strictly associated with tobacco smoking. Tumours developed in non-smoking subjects account for less than 10% of all lung cancers and show peculiar histopathological features, being prevalently adenocarcinomas. A number of genetic data suggest that their biological behaviour may be different from that of lung tumours caused by smoking, however the number of cases investigated to date is too low to draw definitive conclusions. We have examined the status of p53 and K-ras genes and the presence of loss of heterozygosity (LOH) at the FHIT locus in a series of 35 lung adenocarcinomas that developed in subjects who had never smoked. Results were compared with those obtained in a series of 35 lung adenocarcinomas from heavy-smoking subjects. In the group of non-smoking subjects p53 mutations and LOH at the FHIT locus were present in seven (20%) cases, and the two alterations were constantly associated (P < 0.0001), whereas they were not related in the series of carcinomas caused by smoking. In tumours developed in heavy-smoking subjects, the frequency of LOH at the FHIT locus was significantly higher (P = 0.006) than in tumours from non-smoking subjects. The frequency of p53 mutations in adenocarcinomas caused by smoking was not different from that seen in non-smoking subjects. However, in the group of smoking subjects we observed mostly G:C --> T:A transversions, whereas frameshift mutations and G:C --> A:T transitions were more frequently found in tumours from non-smoking subjects. No point mutations of the K-ras gene at codon 12 were seen in subjects who had never smoked, whereas they were present (mostly G:C --> T:A transversions) in 34% of tumours caused by smoking (P = 0.002). Our data suggest that lung adenocarcinomas developed in subjects who had never smoked represent a distinct biological entity involving a co-alteration of the p53 gene and the FHIT locus in 20% of cases.