OBJECTIVES--To produce practice and patient variables for general practices from census and family health services authority data, and to determine the importance of these variables in explaining variation in cervical smear uptake rates between practices. DESIGN--Population based study examining variations in cervical smear uptake rates among 126 general practices using routine data. SETTING--Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth Family Health Services Authority, which covers parts of inner and outer London. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE--Percentage of women aged 25-64 years registered with a general practitioner who had undergone a cervical smear test during the five and a half years preceding 31 March 1992. RESULTS--Cervical smear uptake rates varied from 16.5% to 94.1%. The estimated percentage of practice population from ethnic minority groups correlated negatively with uptake rates (r = -0.42), as did variables associated with social deprivation such as overcrowding (r = -0.42), not owning a car (r = -0.41), and unemployment (r = -0.40). Percentage of practice population under 5 years of age correlated positively with uptake rate (r = 0.42). Rates were higher in practices with a female partner than in those without (66.6% v 49.1%; difference 17.5% (95% confidence interval 10.5% to 24.5%)), and in computerised than in non-computerised practices (64.5% v 50.5%; 14.0% (6.4% to 21.6%)). Rates were higher in larger practices. In a stepwise multiple regression model that explained 52% of variation, five factors were significant predictors of uptake rates: presence of a female partner; children under 5; overcrowding; number of women aged 35-44 as percentage of all women aged 25-64; change of address in past year. CONCLUSIONS--Over half of variation in cervical smear uptake rates can be explained by patient and practice variables derived from census and family health services authority data; these variables may have a role in explaining variations in performance of general practices and in producing adjusted measures of practice performance. Practices with a female partner had substantially higher uptake rates.