The "field of injury" hypothesis proposes that exposure to an inhaled insult such as cigarette smoke elicits a common molecular response throughout the respiratory tract. This response can therefore be quantified in any airway tissue, including readily accessible epithelial cells in the bronchus, nose, and mouth. High-throughput technologies, such as whole-genome gene expression microarrays, can be employed to catalog the physiological consequences of such exposures in the airway epithelium. Pulmonary diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and asthma are also thought to be associated with a field of injury, and in patients with these diseases, airway epithelial cells can be a useful surrogate for diseased tissue that is often difficult to obtain. Global measurement of mRNA and microRNA expression in these cells can provide useful information about the molecular pathogenesis of such diseases and may be useful for diagnosis and for predicting prognosis and response to therapy. In this review, our aim is to summarize the history and state of the art of such "transcriptomic" studies in the human airway epithelium, especially in smoking and smoking-related lung diseases, and to highlight future directions for this field.