Mitogen/extracellular signal-regulated kinase-5 (MEK5)/extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase-5 (ERK5) pathway plays a pro-oncogenic role in tumourigenesis by anticell apoptosis, promoting cell proliferation and differentiation in response to extracellular stimuli. As overexpressed MEK5/ERK5 is involved in the development of lung cancer, we hypothesised that the single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in MEK5 and ERK5 genes may influence gene expression and thus be associated with lung cancer risk. Five putative functional polymorphisms (rs3743353T>C, rs7172582C>T and rs2278076A>G of MEK5 and rs3866958G>T and rs2233083C>T of ERK5) were genotyped in two independent case–control studies with a total of 1559 lung cancer patients and 1679 controls in southern and eastern Chinese population. We found the rs3866958G>T of ERK5 was significantly associated with lung cancer risk, while other SNPs were not. Compared with the rs3866958TG/TT genotypes, the GG genotype conferred an increased risk of lung cancer (odds ratio = 1.30, 95% confidence interval = 1.12–1.51, P = 5.0×10−4), and this effect was more pronounced in smokers, accompanying with a significant interaction with smoking (Pinteraction = 0.013). The GG genotype also had significant higher mRNA levels of ERK5 in lung cancer tissues than TG/TT genotypes (P = 1.0×10−4); the luciferase reporter with the G allele showed significant higher transcription activities than the T allele, especially after the treatment with tobacco extract in vitro. Our data indicated that the functional polymorphism rs3866958G>T in ERK5 was associated with an increased lung cancer risk in smokers by virtue of the positive interaction with smoking on promoting the ERK5 expression, which might be a valuable indicator for predicting lung cancer risk in smokers.