A clear, up-to-date picture of smoking prevalence and its determinants is needed to inform the development of effective tobacco control policy in Belarus and other parts of the former Soviet Union. It is particularly important in view of the way the tobacco industry has targeted this region since transition. A nationally representative household survey designed to explore smoking behaviour and its determinants was undertaken in Belarus in April 2000. Data were available on 1090 individuals aged 18 years and over (response rate 53.4%). Respondents were similar demographically to the population of Belarus. Fifty three percent of men and 9% of women are current smokers and an additional 18% and 7% respectively are ex-smokers. Differences in smoking habits between successive generations were identified. These included a ninefold higher rate of ever-smoking amongst 18-29 years old women compared with those aged over 60 years (p < 0.0001) and a higher proportion of current smokers starting in childhood amongst those aged 18-29 years compared with older smokers (p = 0.0005). Smoking in public places, particularly the workplace where 65% smoke, is common. Smokers are more likely than non-smokers to have positive beliefs about the health impact of active and passive smoking (p < 0.0001). Amongst women the odds of smoking is 13 times higher in those living in large cities compared with those living in villages. In men, disadvantage and a positive attitude to the west appear to increase the likelihood of smoking. To date policy responses have been inadequate. Unless effective tobacco control policies are introduced, tobacco will continue to make an increasingly large contribution to premature morbidity and mortality in Belarus.