Background Chronic bronchitis (CB) is strongly associated with cigarette smoking, but not all smokers develop CB. We aimed to evaluate whether measures of structural airway disease on CT are differentially associated with CB. Methods In smokers between ages 45 and 80 years, and with Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease stages 0-4, CB was defined by the classic definition. Airway disease on CT was quantified by (i) wall area percent (WA%) of segmental airways; (ii) Pi10, the square root of the wall area of a hypothetical airway with 10 mm internal perimeter; (iii) total airway count (TAC) and (iv) airway fractal dimension (AFD), a measure of the complex branching pattern and remodelling of airways. CB was also assessed at the 5-year follow-up visit. Measurements and main results Of 8917 participants, 1734 (19.4%) had CB at baseline. Airway measures were significantly worse in those with CB compared with those without CB: WA% 54.5 (8.8) versus 49.8 (8.3); Pi10 2.58 (0.67) versus 2.28 (0.59) mm; TAC 156.7 (81.6) versus 177.8 (91.1); AFD 1.477 (0.091) versus 1.497 (0.092) (all p<0.001). On follow-up of 5517 participants at 5 years, 399 (7.2%) had persistent CB. With adjustment for between-visits changes in smoking status and lung function, greater WA% and Pi10 were associated with significantly associated with persistent CB, adjusted OR per SD change 1.75, 95% CI 1.56 to 1.97; p<0.001 and 1.66, 95% CI 1.42 to 1.86; p<0.001, respectively. Higher AFD and TAC were associated with significantly lower odds of persistent CB, adjusted OR per SD change 0.76, 95% CI 0.67 to 0.86; p<0.001 and 0.69, 95% CI 0.60 to 0.80; p<0.001, respectively. Conclusions Higher baseline AFD and TAC are associated with a lower risk of persistent CB, irrespective of changes in smoking status, suggesting preserved airway structure can confer a reserve against CB.