Smoking trends and patterns in Italy were evaluated using data from the 1986-87 Italian National Health Survey, based on a sample of 30,096 males and 32,176 females aged 15 or over, randomly selected within strata of geographical areas and sizes of the place of residence and of the household in order to be representative of the whole Italian population: 40.8% of Italian males and 17.3% of females described themselves as current smokers (overall estimated prevalence, 28.6%). In comparison with previous survey-based data, self-reported smoking prevalence in males has been steadily decreasing over the last three decades, whereas rates in females have been increasing up to the early 1980s, and have shown a levelling off only in more recent years. The apparent declines in self-reported smoking, however, were not reflected in official sales figures. In fact, in the mid 1980s, there were simultaneously the lowest overall prevalence of the last three decades and the highest sales figures ever reported. The inter-sex differences in smoking prevalence were smaller at younger ages. Education, but not occupation as a measure of social class, was inversely related to smoking prevalence in males. Furthermore, rates for males were lower in the northern (and richer) part of the country. The pattern was totally different in females, since smoking prevalence was higher in more educated women, of higher social class, living in North Italy. This suggests that, in the absence of adequate measures, smoking prevalence is likely to rise among Italian women in the near future. Continued monitoring of smoking patterns gives important information with which to identify the most likely future patterns in smoking and smoking-related diseases, besides providing data for targeting intervention programs.