Psychological factors, including distress and fears of recurrence, may be implicated in explaining why head and neck oncology patients continue or refrain from smoking. The aim was to determine the role of psychological factors in understanding smoking behaviour in a consecutive group of cancer patients attending a Regional Maxillofacial Unit over an assessment period of 12 months. A consecutive sample (n = 87) was assessed at 3, 7, 11 and 15 months following initial treatment. Measures of psychological distress included the Worry of Cancer Scale and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale. Patient self-report assessed tobacco consumption. At follow-up, 73 patients successfully completed the four timed assessments (84% response rate). Twenty patients were consistent smokers (27%), 37 (51%) abstained, 7 (10%) returned to smoking, whereas 9 (12%) ceased to smoke by the final 15-month follow-up. Between the consistent smokers and abstainers there was a significant raised level of distress in the smoking group at each assessment after the initial baseline. Fear of recurrence was weakly related to smoking behaviour. The level of cigarette consumption at baseline was a significant predictor (adjust r 2 = 0.37) of psychological distress at 15 months in committed smokers. Previous duration of tobacco consumption prior to illness predicted psychological distress in abstainers (standardized coefficient = 0.29, n = 30, P < 0.036). In conclusion, past and current smoking behaviour is associated with psychological distress in patients with oral and oropharyngeal malignancy in their first 15 months of recovery following initial treatment. This behaviour successfully identified a psychologically at-risk group.