Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is organized in cancer cells by a set of key transcription factors, but the significance of this process is still debated including in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Here we report increased expression of the EMT-inducing transcription factor Snail in premalignant pulmonary lesions, relative to histologically normal pulmonary epithelium. In immortalized human pulmonary epithelial cells and isogenic derivatives, we documented Snail-dependent anchorage-independent growth in vitro and primary tumor growth and metastatic behavior in vivo. Snail-mediated transformation relied upon silencing of the tumor suppressive RNA splicing regulatory protein ESRP1. In clinical specimens of NSCLC, ESRP1 loss was documented in Snail-expressing premalignant pulmonary lesions. Mechanistic investigations showed that Snail drives malignant progression in an ALDH+CD44+CD24- pulmonary stem cell subset in which ESRP1 and stemness-repressing microRNAs are inhibited. Collectively, our results show how ESRP1 loss is a critical event in lung carcinogenesis, and they identify new candidate directions for targeted therapy of NSCLC.