Oncogenic human papillomavirus (HPV) is a causative agent in a subgroup of head and neck carcinomas, particularly tonsillar squamous cell carcinomas (TSCC). This study was undertaken because controversial data exist on the physical status of HPV-DNA and the use of p16INK4A overexpression as surrogate HPV marker, and to examine the impact of HPV and tobacco consumption on the clinical course of TSCC. Tissue sections of 81 TSCC were analyzed by HPV 16-specific fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) and p16INK4A-specific immunohistochemistry. Results were correlated with clinical and demographic data. HPV 16 integration was detected by FISH as punctate signals in 33 out of 81 (41%) TSCC, 32 of which showed p16INK4A accumulation. Only 5 out of 48 HPV-negative tumors showed p16INK4A immunostaining (p < 0.0001). The presence of HPV furthermore correlates significantly with low tobacco (p = 0.002) and alcohol intake (p = 0.011), poor differentiation grade (p = 0.019), small tumor size (p = 0.024), presence of a local metastasis (p = 0.001) and a decreased (loco)regional recurrence rate (p = 0.039). Statistical analysis revealed that smoking significantly increases the risk of cancer death from TSCC and that non-smoking patients with HPV-containing TSCC show a remarkably better disease-specific survival rate. HPV 16 is integrated in 41% of TSCC and strongly correlates with p16INK4A overexpression, implicating the latter to be a reliable HPV biomarker. Patients with HPV-positive tumors show a favorable prognosis as compared to those with HPV-negative tumors, but tobacco use is the strongest prognostic indicator. These findings indicate that oncogenic processes in the tonsils of non-smokers differ from those occurring in smokers, the former being related to HPV 16 infection. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.