This study estimated smoking prevalence and identified factors associated with initiation among preteens in Nashville, TN. An anonymous, self-administrated questionnaire was given to 238 fifth- and sixth-graders in a middle-class neighborhood school. The mean age at initiation was 8.5 years (range 6-11 years). Overall, 10.5% of students had ever smoked; 16.1% of blacks and 9.3% of whites. Eighty-six percent continued to smoke. Black sixth-graders smoked (26.9%) four times the rate of black fifth-graders and 2.5 times that of white sixth-graders. Relatives initiated 78% of blacks while friends initiated 68% of whites. One-quarter of smokers got their cigarettes at home. Regular attendees of religious services had a lower smoking rate (6.9% versus 16.4%; p=0.01). Smoking rates decreased with increased knowledge of risks (p=0.00001). Among smokers, none believed that smoking is a risk factor for heart disease, 96% did not believe that smoking has any short-term health effects or is a risk factor for stroke. Few ever-smokers had a complete understanding of the health risks. Targeted messages and curriculum should be developed to teach preteens about the short- and long-term dangers of smoking. Clinicians can play a major role in educating their clients about the risks of smoking.