Background Smoking is the main risk factor for most of the leading causes of death. Cessation is the single most important step that smokers can take to improve their health. With the aim of informing policy makers about decisions on future tobacco control strategies, we estimated time and age trends in smoking cessation in Europe between 1980 and 2010. Methods Data on the smoking history of 50,228 lifetime smokers from 17 European countries were obtained from six large population-based studies included in the Ageing Lungs in European Cohorts (ALEC) consortium. Smoking cessation rates were assessed retrospectively, and age trends were estimated for three decades (1980–1989, 1990–1999, 2000–2010). The analyses were stratified by sex and region (North, East, South, West Europe). Results Overall, 21,735 subjects (43.3%) quit smoking over a total time-at-risk of 803,031 years. Cessation rates increased between 1980 and 2010 in young adults (16–40 years), especially females, from all the regions, and in older adults (41–60 years) from North Europe, while they were stable in older adults from East, South and West Europe. In the 2000s, the cessation rates for men and women combined were highest in North Europe (49.9 per 1,000/year) compared to the other regions (range: 26.5–32.7 per 1,000/year). A sharp peak in rates was observed for women around the age of 30, possibly as a consequence of pregnancy-related smoking cessation. In most regions, subjects who started smoking before the age of 16 were less likely to quit than those who started later. Conclusions Our findings suggest an increasing awareness on the detrimental effects of smoking across Europe. However, East, South and West European countries are lagging behind North Europe, suggesting the need to intensify tobacco control strategies in these regions. Additional efforts should be made to keep young adolescents away from taking up smoking, as early initiation could make quitting more challenging during later life.