BACKGROUND: The study objective is to evaluate the effect of monetary incentives on response rates of adolescents to a smoking-related survey as the first step toward participation in an intervention trial. METHODS: A sample of 4,200 adolescent members of a managed care organization were randomized to one of four incentive groups: a $2 cash group, a $15 cash group, a $200 prize drawing group, or a no-incentive group. We compared group-specific response rates and willingness to be contacted about future study activities, as well as costs. RESULTS: Incentives increased survey response rates (55% response without incentive vs. a 69% response with incentive), with response of 74% in the $15 cash group, 69% in the token group, and 63% with a prize incentive. Incentives did not adversely affect willingness of adolescents to be contacted about a smoking intervention, (65% willing with incentives vs. 60% without, P = 0.03). In terms of cost per additional survey completed, token and prize groups were marginally more expensive than the no-incentive group ($0.40 and $1.42, respectively) while the large cash incentive was substantially more costly ($11.37). CONCLUSIONS: Monetary incentives improve response rates to a mailed survey, without adverse impact on willingness to further participate in intervention activities. However, a variety of issues must be considered when using incentives for recruitment to intervention studies.