BACKGROUND: Although alterations in nonspecific (or global) DNA methylation (GDM) in specific cells are known to be involved in the process of lung carcinogenesis, similar associations have not been evaluated in other smoking-related cancers of the head and neck. METHODS: We evaluated the status of GDM by using monoclonal antibodies specific for 5-methylcytosine (5-mc) in oral squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) specimens of 48 cigarette smokers who had SCC develop and in 93 age-, race-, and sex-matched smokers who did not. RESULTS: Percentages of cells positive for 5-mc immunostaining of DNA of SCC and dysplastic lesions were significantly higher than those of normal oral epithelial cells from cancer subjects and from noncancer subjects. The degree of DNA methylation was unrelated to DNA content. CONCLUSIONS: The pattern of GDM in oral SCCs is different from that of lung SCCs. The differences in nutrient risk factor profiles that are related to GDM and differential activity of DNA methyltranferases between oral and lung SCCs may explain these observations.