In this study, we examined two groups of patients with chronic airflow limitation (CAL) separated according to their awake, stable arterial CO2 level. The aim was to identify factors that may contribute to the development of chronic hypercapnic respiratory failure. Patients with obstructive sleep apnea were excluded from the study. Detailed lifetime histories of smoking, alcohol, and snoring were obtained from all patients together with measurements of lung function and of upper airway size. Thirty-three patients with FEV1 less than 1.5 L were studied, of whom 19 were eucapnic and 14 were hypercapnic. Both groups had a similar degree of chronic airflow limitation and similar lung volumes and DLCO. The hypercapnic group had more hypopneas and desaturated more severely during sleep. The greatest differences between the groups were in their alcohol consumptions, snoring histories, and upper airway dimensions. The eucapnic patients were characterized by lower lifetime alcohol intake, minimal snoring, and large upper airway size. In contrast, the hypercapnic patients were characterized by excessive lifetime alcohol consumption, habitual snoring over many years, and a small upper airway size. Our findings suggest that chronic, heavy alcohol use and upper airway dysfunction are important factors in the development of hypercapnic respiratory failure.