CHEK2 is a key cell cycle control gene encoding a pluripotent kinase that can cause arrest or apoptosis in response to unrepaired DNA damage. We report a large case-control study of a non-functional variant that had previously been expected to increase cancer rates. Four thousand and fifteen cancer patients (2250 lung, 811 squamous upper aero-digestive and 954 kidney) and 3052 controls in central Europe were genotyped for the mis-sense variant rs17879961 (replacement of T by C), which changes an amino acid (I157T) in an active site of the gene product. The heterozygous (T/C) genotype was associated with a highly significantly lower incidence of lung cancer than the common T/T genotype [relative risk (RR), T/C versus T/T, 0.44, with 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.31-0.63, P < 0.00001] and with a significantly lower incidence of upper aero-digestive cancer (RR 0.44, CI 0.26-0.73, (P = 0.001; P = 0.000001 for lung or upper aero-digestive cancer). Protection was significantly greater for squamous than adenomatous lung cancer (P = 0.001). There was an increase of borderline significance in kidney cancer (RR 1.44, CI 0.99-2.00, P = 0.06). This unexpected halving of tobacco-related cancer (since replicated independently) implies much greater absolute risk reduction in smokers than in non-smokers. The mechanism is unknown: perhaps squamous stem cell apoptosis following smoke exposure causes net harm (e.g. by forcing nearby stem cells to divide before they have repaired their own DNA damage from tobacco smoke). If so, reducing the rate of apoptosis by reducing CHEK2 activity could be protective - although not smoking would be far more so.