4-(Methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanol (NNAL) is a chiral compound, and the primary metabolite of 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK), a major carcinogen in tobacco smoke. The goal of the present work was to study the pharmacokinetics and stereoselective metabolism and tissue retention of NNK and NNAL in the rat. Groups of rats were dosed with [5-3H]NNK (n = 3) or racemic [5-3H]NNAL (n = 3) at a target dose of 8.45 μmol/kg and were killed at selected time points for tissue collection. Separate groups of rats (n = 5 per group) received the same dose of either NNK or NNAL and serial sampling of blood, bile and urine was carried out over 24 h. All samples were analyzed by C18 reversed-phase HPLC with gradient elution and radioflow detection. A gas chromatograph-thermal energy analyzer (GC-TEA) was used to separate the (R)-/(S)-NNAL enantiomers. Racemic NNAL and NNK had large volumes of distribution (321 ± 137 ml for NNK and 2772 ± 1423 ml for NNAL) and similar total body clearances (12.8 ± 2.0 ml/min for NNK and 8.6 ± 2.6 ml/min for NNAL). The results indicated that the enantiomers of NNAL are stereo-selectively metabolized and excreted. The glucuronide of (R)-NNAL, ((R)-NNAL-Gluc) was identified as the major metabolite in the bile after administration of either NNK or NNAL. (R)-NNAL was the major NNAL enantiomer in the bile or urine samples. At 24 h after racemic NNAL administration, NNAL comprised an average of 75.4% of total radioactivity in the lung with an (S)-/(R)-ratio of >20. The stereoselective localization of (S)-NNAL to lung tissue may contribute to the lung selectivity of NNK carcinogenesis. The present studies suggest a need to look beyond metabolic activation as the sole mechanism for lung carcinogenesis.