The airway epithelium is the primary site of the earliest pathologic changes induced by smoking, contributing to the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The normal human airway epithelium is composed of several major cell types, including differentiated ciliated and secretory cells, intermediate undifferentiated cells, and basal cells (BC). BC contain the stem/progenitor cell population responsible for maintenance of the normally differentiated airway epithelium. Although inflammatory and immune processes play a significant role in the pathogenesis of COPD, the earliest lesions include hyperplasia of the BC population, suggesting that the disease may start with this cell type. Apart from BC hyperplasia, smoking induces a number of COPD-relevant airway epithelial remodeling phenotypes that are likely initiated in the BC population, including mucous cell hyperplasia, squamous cell metaplasia, epithelial-mesenchymal transition, altered ciliated and nonmucous secretory cell differentiation, and suppression of junctional barrier integrity. Significant progress has been recently made in understanding the biology of human airway BC, including gene expression features, stem/progenitor, and other functions, including interaction with other airway cell types. Accumulating evidence suggests that human airway BC function as both sensors and cellular sources of various cytokines and growth factors relevant to smoking-associated airway injury, as well as the origin of various molecular and histological phenotypes relevant to the pathogenesis of COPD. In the context of these considerations, we suggest that early BC-specific smoking-induced molecular changes are critical to the pathogenesis of COPD, and these represent a candidate target for novel therapeutic approaches to prevent COPD progression in susceptible individuals.