DNA double strand breaks (DSBs) are potentially carcinogenic lesions. The induction of DSBs triggers phosphorylation of histone H2AX. Phosphorylated H2AX, denoted p-H2AX, may be detected immunocytochemically and the intensity of p-H2AX immunofluorescence (IF) reveals the frequency of DSBs. Using this assay we tested whether the exposure of A549 human pulmonary adenocarcinoma cells to tobacco smoke, and normal human bronchial epithelial cells (NHBE) to tobacco smoke condensate, induces DSBs. Cellular p-H2AX IF and DAPI fluorescence of individual cells were measured by laser scanning cytometry (LSC). Exposure of A549 cells to tobacco smoke and NHBE cells to smoke condensate led to H2AX phosphorylation in both a time and dose dependent manner. The maximal rate of H2AX phosphorylation was seen during the initial 4h of cell treatment. At high doses (50 microg/ml of smoke condensate), H2AX phosphorylation continued to increase for up to 24h. No differences in the level of H2AX phosphorylation were apparent between cells in G(1) vs S vs G(2)/M phase of the cell cycle in response to treatment with smoke condensate. The data provide strong evidence that exposure of A549 cells to tobacco smoke or NHBE cells to smoke condensate rapidly induces DSBs in these cells. The present assay to detect and measure DSBs induced by tobacco products complements other mutagenicity assays and may be applied to test potential carcinogens in other products.