Abstract The induction of transformation in Syrian hamster embryo (SHE) cells is a multifactorial process, in comparison to endpoints induced in in vitro genotoxicity assays such as Ames, mouse lymphoma and cytogenetics [Y. Berwald, L. Sachs, In vitro cell transformation with chemical carcinogens, Nature (London) 200 (1963) 1182–1184]. Furthermore, a number of non-genotoxic carcinogens and promoters such as clofibrate and diethylhexylphthalate, have been positively identified in this assay, while giving false negative results in traditional genotoxicity assays [H. Yamasaki, J. Ashby, M. Bignami, W. Jongen, K. Linnainmaa, R.F. Newbold, G. Nguyen-Ba, S. Parodi, E. Rivedal, D. Schiffmann, J.W.I.M. Simons, P. Vasseur, Nongenotoxic carcinogens: development of detection methods based on mechanisms: a European project, Mutat. Res. 353 (1996) 47–63]. A high concordance between results obtained in this assay when compared with rodent carcinogenesis bioassays has also been noted [R.J. Isfort, G.A. Kerckaert, R.A. LeBoeuf, Comparison of the standard and reduced pH Syrian hamster embryo (SHE) in vitro cell transformation assays to predict the carcinogenic potential of chemicals, Mutat. Res. 356 (1996) 11–63]. Carcinogenesis is known to be a multistage process, with agents potentially acting at each stage. Specifically, mouse skin painting experiments established that tumour induction could be mechanistically divided into two distinct phases, termed initiation and promotion. Initiation, is defined as the stage at which a normal cell is converted to a latent tumour cell, followed by promotion where the latent tumour cell progresses to a tumour [W.F. Friedwald, P. Rous, The initiating and promoting elements in tumour production: analysis of the effects of tar, benzpyrene and methylcholanthrene on rabbit skin, J. Exp. Med. 80 (1944) 101–125]. A protocol for the pH 6.7 SHE transformation assay has been developed which allows separation of cell transformation process into two phases, potentially analogous to initiation and promotion in vivo. This allows chemicals found to be positive in the traditional SHE cell transformation assay to be further classified as initiators or promoters. Following validation with known initiators, benzo(a)pyrene and N-methyl- N′-nitro- N-nitrosoguanidine and promoters, 12- O-tetradecanoyl-phorbol-13-acetate and phenobarbitone, the two-stage model was applied to cigarette smoke particulates which was found to act both at the initiation and promotion stage of cell transformation.