COPD is underdiagnosed and its early assessment is problematic. It has been suggested that symptomatic smokers with normal FEV 1/FVC (Stage 0 COPD, GOLD criteria) can develop COPD in the future. Potential early biomarkers in COPD include the matrix metallo-proteinases (MMPs). It is not yet known, whether alterations in MMP expression are associated with smoking alone or with the risk of developing COPD. In this cross-sectional study MMP-8, MMP-9 and MMP-12 were determined from induced sputum and plasma by ELISA, immunocytochemistry, zymography, and/or Western blot in non-smokers (n = 32), smokers with symptoms (Stage 0, GOLD criteria) (n = 23) or without symptoms (n = 23). Only MMP-8 differentiated Stage 0 COPD from non-symptomatic smokers (p = 0.02). MMP-9 levels were significantly elevated in the induced sputum of non-symptomatic smokers and Stage 0 COPD (p = 0.01, p < 0.001) compared to non-smokers, but did not differ between the two subgroups of smokers. MMP-12 was higher only at Stage 0 compared to non-smokers (p = 0.04). MMP-8, MMP-9 and MMP-12 immunoreactivity was localized in macrophages and neutrophils, especially in smokers. MMP-8 levels correlated significantly with the small airway flow parameters (MEF50, MEF25) (p = 0.005 and p = 0.0004) and markers of neutrophil activation (myeloperoxidase, lactoferrin). In conclusion MMP-8 may differentiate Stage 0 from healthy smokers.