Background: Surveillance systems often present data by means of summary measures, like age-standardised rates. In this study, we aimed at comparing information derived from commonly used measures of smoking with that presented in modified population pyramids (PPs), using the example of the diffusion of smoking in Italy over the past two decades. Methods: Data were derived from four National Health Interview Surveys carried out in 1983, 1990 to 1991, 1999 to 2000, and 2004 to 2005. After computing both age-specific and age-standardised rates of current, former, and never smoking, we constructed modified PPs by stratifying the male an Results: Modified PPs showed several features of the smoking epidemic in Italy that were not apparent from conventional surveillance techniques. First, they showed that the population of smokers is aging, with most current smokers in 2005 being males aged 25 to 39 and females aged 40 to 49, whereas in 1983 most smokers belonged to the youngest age groups. Second, they showed that in 2005 most smokers were found among subjects with middle and higher education, whereas two decades earlier most smo Conclusions: Modified PPs were able to show how absolute numbers of smokers were distributed by age and sex, how these numbers varied between population subgroups, and how they changed over time. PPs may help provide information on past and future trends in the absolute number of smokers and in their sociodemographic characteristics, which may be missed using only traditional surveillance methods.