The mechanisms underlying bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) immunotherapy of bladder cancer currently remain elusive. Previously, we demonstrated that macrophages were cytotoxic to bladder cancer cells upon BCG stimulation in vitro. However, macrophages from C57BL/6 mice were less potent than those from C3H/HeN mice for the killing of bladder cancer cells. This study was to determine whether interleukin (IL)-10 produced by macrophages in response to BCG is a causative factor for the reduced cytotoxicity in BCG-stimulated C57BL/6 macrophages. Thioglycollate-elicited peritoneal macrophages were prepared and analysed for the BCG induction of cytotoxicity, cytokines and nitric oxide (NO) in vitro. Compared to BCG-stimulated C3H/HeN macrophages, BCG-stimulated C57BL/6 macrophages exhibited reduced killing of bladder cancer MBT-2 cells and MB49 cells. Studies demonstrated further that BCG-stimulated C57BL/6 macrophages produced a high level of IL-10, which correlated with reduced production of tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α, IL-6 and NO. Neutralizing endogenous IL-10 during BCG stimulation increased C57BL/6 macrophage cytotoxicity against MB49 cells by 3·2-fold, along with increased production of TNF-α by 6·4-fold and NO by 3·6-fold, respectively. Macrophages from C57BL/6 IL-10−/− mice also exhibited increased killing of MB49 cells and production of TNF-α and NO upon BCG stimulation. In addition, supplementation of exogenous recombinant IL-10 reduced BCG-induced C3H/HeN macrophage cytotoxicity against both MBT-2 cells and MB49 cells in a dose-dependent manner. These results reveal the inhibitory role of IL-10 in BCG-induced macrophage cytotoxicity, suggesting that blockage of IL-10 may potentially enhance the effect of BCG in the treatment of bladder cancer patients.