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Smoking is an independent risk factor for the initiation, extent and severity of periodontal disease. This study examined the ability of the host immune system to discriminate commensal oral bacteria from pathogens at mucosal surfaces, i.e. oral cavity. Serum immunoglobulin (Ig)G antibody reactive with three pathogenic and five commensal oral bacteria in 301 current smokers (age range 21–66 years) were examined by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Clinical features of periodontal health were used as measures of periodontitis. Antibody to the pathogens and salivary cotinine levels were related positively to disease severity; however, the antibody levels were best described by the clinical disease unrelated to the amount of smoking. The data showed a greater immune response to pathogens than commensals that was related specifically to disease extent, and most noted in black males. Significant correlations in individual patient responses to the pathogens and commensals were lost with an increasing extent of periodontitis and serum antibody to the pathogens. Antibody to Porphyromonas gingivalis was particularly distinct with respect to the discriminatory nature of the immune responses in recognizing the pathogens. Antibody responses to selected pathogenic and commensal oral microorganisms differed among racial groups and genders. The antibody response to the pathogens was related to disease severity. The level of antibody to the pathogens, and in particular P. gingivalis, was correlated with disease severity in black and male subsets of patients. The amount of smoking did not appear to impact directly serum antibody levels to these oral bacteria.