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OBJECTIVE--To examine the association between smoking, alcohol consumption, and the incidence of non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus in men of middle years and older. DESIGN--Cohort questionnaire study of men followed up for six years from 1986. SETTING--The health professionals' follow up study being conducted across the United States. SUBJECTS--41,810 male health professionals aged 40-75 years and free of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer in 1986 and followed up for six years. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE--Incidence of non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus diagnosed in the six years. RESULTS--During 230,769 person years of follow up 509 men were newly diagnosed with diabetes. After controlling for known risk factors men who smoked 25 or more cigarettes daily had a relative risk of diabetes of 1.94 (95% confidence interval 1.25 to 3.03) compared with non-smokers. Men who consumed higher amounts of alcohol had a reduced risk of diabetes (P for trend < 0.001). Compared with abstainers men who drank 30.0-49.9 g of alcohol daily had a relative risk of diabetes of 0.61 (95% confidence interval 0.44 to 0.91). CONCLUSIONS--Cigarette smoking may be an independent, modifiable risk factor for non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus. Moderate alcohol consumption among healthy people may be associated with increased insulin sensitivity and a reduced risk of diabetes.