Most recent guidelines advise targeting of lipid lowering for primary prevention at those at high absolute coronary (CHD) risk. We compared the accuracy of five CHD risk assessment methods in identifying such patients: one based on total cholesterol > or = 6.5 mmol/l plus two risk factors, and four based on the Framingham risk function (the European Task Force chart and Sheffield table, both using total cholesterol and the New Zealand chart and modified Sheffield table, both using total: HDL cholesterol ratio) for predicting CHD event risk > or = 2% per year, calculated by an independent risk function, PROCAM, in 126 treated hypertensive men. Cholesterol threshold plus two risk factors had sensitivity 59% and specificity 63%, did not identify some very high-risk patients, and identified very low-risk patients. Framingham-based methods using total cholesterol alone had sensitivity 90-98% and specificity 37-43%, and identified high-risk patients well, but identified some patients at very low risk. Methods based on total: HDL cholesterol ratio had sensitivity 90-98% and specificity 60-63%, and did not identify incorrectly patients at very low CHD risk. Methods based on cholesterol threshold and counting of risk factors are too inaccurate for targeting drug therapy for primary prevention of CHD. Framingham-based methods should incorporate HDL-cholesterol as the total: HDL cholesterol ratio.