AIM: To compare the incidence of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the lung in Okinawa with that in Niigata on the mainland. METHODS: All patients presenting with SCC of the lung in Okinawa and Niigata in 1993 were included in the study. Diagnoses were confirmed by conventional histological examination of paraffin wax sections. Human papillomavirus (HPV) was detected by non-isotopic in situ hybridisation (NISH) and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification with primers specific for the E6 and E7 regions of the HPV genome. PCR products were analysed by Southern and dot blotting. RESULTS: The incidence of well differentiated SCC of the lung was high in patients from Okinawa compared with moderately and poorly differentiated types, and compared with the incidence of SCC in patients from Niigata. This is despite similar patterns of age, sex (predominatly male), and smoking habit. More patients from Okinawa, however, were positive for HPV DNA by PCR (79%) and NISH (53%). Many patients haboured HPV types 6, 16, and 18. Only 30% of patients from Niigata were positive for HPV DNA by PCR and 20% by NISH. These patients all harboured one HPV type only. CONCLUSION: Surprisingly large numbers of patients from Okinawa were positive for HPV DNA. The detection of HPV DNA was strongly associated with well differentiated SCC. This was particularly true for HPV types 6 and 16. There was no correlation between either smoking and detection of HPV DNA, or smoking and histological differentiation.