Confocal microendoscopy permits the acquisition of high-resolution real-time confocal images of bronchial mucosa via the instrument channel of an endoscope. We report here on the construction and validation of a confocal fluorescence microendoscope and its use to acquire images of bronchial epithelium in vivo. Our objective is to develop an imaging method that can distinguish preneoplastic lesions from normal epithelium to enable us to study the natural history of these lesions and the efficacy of chemopreventive agents without biopsy removal of the lesion that can introduce a spontaneous regression bias. The instrument employs a laser-scanning engine and bronchoscope-compatible confocal probe consisting of a fiber-optic image guide and a graded-index objective lens. We assessed the potential of topical application of physiological pH cresyl violet (CV) as a fluorescence contrast-enhancing agent for the visualization of tissue morphology. Images acquired ex vivo with the confocal microendoscope were first compared with a bench-top confocal fluorescence microscope and conventional histology. Confocal images from five sites topically stained with CV were then acquired in vivo from high-risk smokers and compared to hematoxylin and eosin stained sections of biopsies taken from the same site. Sufficient contrast in the confocal imagery was obtained to identify cells in the bronchial epithelium. However, further improvements in the miniature objective lens are required to provide sufficient axial resolution for accurate classification of preneoplastic lesions.