OBJECTIVE: To examine the relation between smoking status, clinical need, and likelihood of coronary artery bypass grafting in middle aged men. DESIGN: A prospective study of cardiovascular disease in British men aged 40 to 59 years, screened in 1978-80 and followed until December 1991. SUBJECTS AND SETTING: 7735 men drawn from one general practice in each of 24 British towns. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE: Coronary artery bypass graft surgery. RESULTS: Of the 3185 current smokers, 38 (1.03/1000/year) underwent coronary artery bypass surgery compared with 47 of 2715 (1.45/1000/year) ex-smokers, and 19 of 1817 (0.85/1000/year) never-smokers. Ex-smokers had a lower incidence of major ischaemic heart disease during follow up than current smokers. After adjustment for incidence of ischaemic heart disease during follow up, the hazard ratio of coronary artery bypass surgery for ex-smokers compared with smokers was 1.52 (95% confidence interval 0.99 to 2.34). Ex-smokers were more likely at screening to recall a doctor diagnosis of ischaemic heart disease than smokers (7.1% v 5.3%), but among those who recalled a doctor diagnosis, smokers were less likely to undergo coronary artery bypass surgery than ex-smokers (9.4% v 3.5%, P = 0.026). By 1992, men defined as smokers at screening were no less likely than ex-smokers to have been referred to a cardiologist (18.5% v 18.8%), nor to report having undergone coronary angiography less frequently than ex-smokers (12.7% v 11.4%). CONCLUSION: Even allowing for the strong relation between coronary artery bypass surgery and clinical need, continuing smokers were less likely to undergo coronary artery bypass surgery than ex-smokers. A complex interplay exists between the men's experience of heart disease, the decision to stop smoking, and the willingness of doctors to consider coronary artery bypass surgery.