While level of school education has been related to prevalence of cigarette smoking in a number of studies, less information is available on the role of vocational education and related occupational contexts. This study analyses the relative contribution of different types of educational experience to explaining prevalence and intensity of cigarette smoking in a large sample of female and male vocational trainees in Germany. A standardized questionnaire on smoking behaviour and educational performance was applied in 27 educational centers across the country, covering a total of 20,527 respondents (77.3% of the original sample; women: 59.5%, men: 40.5%). Bivariate analysis revealed a high prevalence of current smokers among vocational trainees, both men (51.2%) and women (49.4%). Men were more likely to be heavy smokers, especially with increasing age. In both sexes, prevalence of smoking was particularly high in the following occupational groups: hairdressers, butchers, painters, service personnel (hotels, restaurants), shop assistants/sellers and cooks. Multivariate analysis taking educational level, type of vocational training (occupation), age, sex and urban-rural background into account revealed the highest prevalence odds ratios (POR) of smoking in subjects with the lowest educational level (POR = 5.19 for men and 4.56 for women). Even stronger effects were observed with smoking intensity (> or = 20 cigarettes/day): in men with the lowest educational level the risk of being a heavy smoker was 8.92, and in women 13.54 compared to subjects with a high-school leaving qualification. Poor school education must be considered the relatively strongest predictor of prevalence and intensity of cigarette smoking in a large sample of female and male vocational trainees. Preventive efforts should be directed at specific target groups such as those identified by this study.