The incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is increasing. Globally, it is estimated that COPD will be the disease responsible for the third highest number of deaths by 2020. National prevalence surveys based on the Quality and Outcomes Framework put the prevalence of COPD at around 1.4%, with a range between different health authorities of 0.8–2.3%, due to either underdiagnosis or poor diagnosis. The prevalence of COPD rises with increasing age, and there are significant geographical variations in prevalence which could be linked to smoking and socio-economic status. In men, age-standardised mortality rates due to COPD have fallen progressively, but in women there has been a small but progressive increase over the last 20 years because of an increase in cigarette smoking among women. Although the major burden of COPD is experienced by patients and their carers, the financial burden in both primary and secondary care is high, and is a concern for healthcare providers.