Objective: To assess the mediation of smokingassociated postoperative mortality by postoperative complications. Design: Observational cohort study. Setting: Using data from the Veterans Affairs (VA) Surgical Quality Improvement Programme, a quality assurance programme for major surgical procedures in the VA healthcare system, we assessed the association of current smoking at the time of the surgery with 6-month and 1-year mortality. Primary and secondary outcome measures: Using mediation analyses, we calculated the relative contribution of each smoking-associated complication to smoking-associated postoperative mortality, both unadjusted and adjusted for age, race/ethnicity, work relative value unit of the operation, surgeon specialty, American Society of Anesthesiologists class and year of surgery. Smoking-associated complications included surgical site infection (SSI), cardiovascular complications (myocardial infarction, cardiac arrest and/or stroke) and pulmonary complications (pneumonia, failure to wean and/or reintubation). Results: There were 186 632 never smokers and 135 741 current smokers. The association of smoking and mortality was mediated by smoking-related complications with varying effects. In unadjusted analyses, the proportions of mediation of smoking to 6-month mortality explained by the complications were as follows: SSIs 22%, cardiovascular complications 12% and pulmonary complications 89%. In adjusted analyses, the per cents mediated by each complication were as follows: SSIs 2%, cardiovascular complications 4% and pulmonary complications 22%. In adjusted analyses for 1-year mortality, respective per cents mediated were 2%, 3% and 16%. Conclusions: Pulmonary complications, followed by cardiovascular complications and SSIs were mediators of smoking-associated 6-month and 1-year mortality. Interventions targeting smoking cessation and.