Incidence and mortality rates for lung cancer in the United States are significantly greater in blacks than in whites. This disparity cannot be explained by differences in smoking behavior. We hypothesize that the observed racial differences in risk may be due to differences in the metabolic activation or detoxification of the tobacco-specific lung carcinogen 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK). To test this, different biomarkers of NNK exposure and metabolism, including the urinary metabolite 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanol (NNAL) and the presumed detoxification product [4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)but-1-yl]-beta-O-D-glucosiduronic acid (NNAL-Gluc), were examined along with questionnaire data on lifestyle habits and diet in a metabolic epidemiological study of 34 black and 27 white healthy smokers. Results demonstrated that urinary NNAL-Gluc:NNAL ratios, a likely indicator of NNAL glucuronidation and detoxification, were significantly greater in whites than in blacks (P < 0.02). In addition, two phenotypes were apparent by probit analysis representing poor (ratio < 6) and extensive (ratio > or = 6) glucuronidation groups. The proportion of blacks falling into the former, potentially high-risk group was significantly greater than that of whites (P < 0.05). The absolute levels of urinary NNAL, NNAL-Gluc, and cotinine were also greater in blacks than in whites when adjusted for the number of cigarettes smoked. None of the observed racial differences could be explained by dissimilarities in exposure or other sociodemographic or dietary factors. Also, it is unlikely that the dissimilarities are due to racial differences in preference for mentholated cigarettes, because chronic administration of menthol to NNK-treated rats did not result in either increases in urinary total NNAL or decreases in NNAL-Gluc:NNAL ratios. Altogether, these results suggest that racial differences in NNAL glucuronidation, a putative detoxification pathway for NNK, may explain in part the observed differences in cancer risk.