BACKGROUND: There was a decrease in smoking during early pregnancy in Swedish women between 1982 and 2001. We sought to determine whether there was a parallel decrease in socioeconomic inequality in smoking. METHODS: Registry data indicating educational level and smoking status at first antenatal visit in all 2,022,469 pregnancies in Sweden 1982-2001 were analysed. Prevalence differences, odds ratios based on prevalences and total attributable fractions were compared for five-year intervals. RESULTS: The prevalence differences of smoking showed a greater decrease at the lowest and middle educational level compared with the highest educational level (14.5%, 15.7% and 10.2%, respectively) indicating reduced inequality in absolute terms. However, odds ratios regarding low educational attainment versus high, increased from 5.6 to 14.2, signifying increased inequality in relative terms. Moreover, the total attributable fraction of low and intermediate educational level regarding smoking at first antenatal visit increased from 61% to 76% during the period studied. CONCLUSIONS: Smoking at first antenatal visit in Sweden between 1982 to 2001 decreased in a way that conclusions regarding trends in inequalities in smoking at first antenatal visit depend on the type of measure applied. However, using the measure of total attributable fraction, which takes into consideration the impact of the exposure on the individual as well as the effect of the varying size of the group of exposed, the growing importance of educational level for the behaviour in the population was demonstrated.