Abstract Health policies on disease prevention differ widely between countries. Studies suggest that different countries have much to learn from each other and that significant health gains could be achieved if all countries followed best practice. This paper describes the policy development and planning process relating to prevention activities in Italy, through a critical appraisal of Regional Prevention Plans (RPPs) drafted for the period 2010-2012. The analysis was performed using a specific evaluation tool developed by a Scientific Committee appointed by the Italian Ministry of Health. We appraised nineteen RPPs, comprising a total of 702 projects, most of them in the areas of universal prevention (62.9%) and prevention in high risk groups (27.0%). Italian Regions established prevention activities using an innovative combination of population and high-risk individuals approaches. However, some issues, such as the need to reduce health inequalities, were poorly addressed. The technical drafting of RPPs required some improvement; e.g. the evidence of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the health interventions proposed was seldom reported. There were significant geographical differences across the Regions in the appraisal of RPPs. Our research suggests that continuous assessment of the planning process of prevention may become a very useful tool for monitoring, and ultimately strengthening, public health capacity in the field of prevention. Further research is needed to analyze determinants of regional variation.