BACKGROUND: Cigarette smoking is a major risk factor for the development and progression of cardiovascular disease. While smoking is associated with increased levels of inflammatory markers and accelerated atherosclerosis, few studies have examined the impact of smoking cessation on levels of inflammatory markers. The degree and rate at which inflammation subsides after smoking cessation are uncertain. It also remains unclear as to whether traditional risk factors can adequately explain the observed decline in cardiovascular risk following smoking cessation. METHODS AND FINDINGS: Using data from 15,489 individuals who participated in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), we analyzed the association between smoking and smoking cessation on levels of inflammatory markers and traditional cardiovascular risk factors. In particular, we examined changes in C-reactive protein, white blood cell count, albumin, and fibrinogen. Inflammatory markers demonstrated a dose-dependent and temporal relationship to smoking and smoking cessation. Both inflammatory and traditional risk factors improved with decreased intensity of smoking. With increased time since smoking cessation, inflammatory markers resolved more slowly than traditional cardiovascular risk factors. CONCLUSION: Inflammatory markers may be more accurate indicators of atherosclerotic disease. Inflammatory markers returned to baseline levels 5 y after smoking cessation, consistent with the time frame associated with cardiovascular risk reduction observed in both the MONICA and Northwick Park Heart studies. Our results suggest that the inflammatory component of cardiovascular disease resulting from smoking is reversible with reduced tobacco exposure and smoking cessation.