OBJECTIVE: To estimate the extent to which cigarette smokers who switch to cigars or pipes alter their risk of dying of three-smoking related diseases-lung cancer, ischaemic heart disease, and chronic obstructive lung disease. DESIGN: A prospective study of 21520 men aged 35-64 years when recruited in 1975-82 with detailed history of smoking and measurement of carboxyhaemoglobin. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Notification of deaths (to 1993) classified by cause. RESULTS: Pipe and cigar smokers who had switched from cigarettes over 20 years before entry to the study smoked less tobacco than cigarette smokers (8.1 g/day v 20 g/day), but they had the same consumption as pipe and cigar smokers who had never smoked cigarettes (8.1 g) and had higher carboxyhaemoglobin saturations (1.2% v 1.0%, P < 0.001), indicating that they inhaled tobacco smoke to a greater extent. They had a 51% higher risk of dying of the three smoking related diseases than pipe or cigar smokers who had never smoked cigarettes (relative risk 1.51; 95% confidence interval 0.96 to 2.38), a 68% higher risk than lifelong non-smokers (1.68; 1.16 to 2.45), a 57% higher risk than former cigarette smokers who gave up smoking over 20 years before entry (1.57; 1.04 to 2.38), and a 46% lower risk than continuing cigarette smokers (0.54; 0.38 to 0.77). CONCLUSION: Cigarette smokers who have difficulty in giving up smoking altogether are better off changing to cigars or pipes than continuing to smoke cigarettes. Much of the effect is due to the reduction in the quantity of tobacco smoked, and some is due to inhaling less. Men who switch do not, however, achieve the lower risk of pipe and cigar smokers who have never smoked cigarettes. All pipe and cigar smokers have a greater risk of lung cancer than lifelong non-smokers or former smokers.