Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco) activity is modulated in vivo either by reaction with CO2 and Mg2+ to carbamylate a lysine residue in the catalytic site, or by the binding of inhibitors within the catalytic site. Binding of inhibitors blocks either activity or the carbamylation of the lysine residue that is essential for activity. At night, in many species, 2-carboxyarabinitol-1-phosphate (CA1P) is formed which binds tightly to Rubisco, inhibiting catalytic activity. Recent work has shown that tight-binding inhibitors can also decrease Rubisco activity in the light and contribute to the regulation of Rubisco activity. Here we determine the influence that such inhibitors of Rubisco exert on catalytic activity during drought stress. In tobacco plants, ‘total Rubisco activity’, i.e. the activity following pre-incubation with CO2 and Mg2+, was positively correlated with leaf relative water content. However, ‘total Rubisco activity’ in extracts from leaves with low water potential increased markedly when tightly bound inhibitors were removed, thus increasing the number of catalytic sites available. This suggests that in tobacco the decrease of Rubisco activity under drought stress is not primarily the result of changes in activation by CO2 and Mg2+ but due rather to the presence of tight-binding inhibitors. The amounts of inhibitor present in leaves of droughted tobacco based on the decrease in Rubisco activity per mg soluble protein were usually much greater than the amounts of the known inhibitors (CA1P and ‘daytime inhibitor’) that can be recovered in acid extracts. Alternative explanations for the difference between maximal and total activities are discussed.