The inhibitory action of tea (Camellia sinensis) and tea components against cancer formation has been demonstrated in different animal models involving different organ sites in many laboratories. The possible preventive activity of tea against cancer in humans, however, is not clear. A critical question is whether the information obtained from animal studies is applicable to humans because of possible species differences or the difference in the quantity of tea used in animal studies and that consumed by humans. This article will discuss the results from animal studies and possible cancer inhibitory mechanisms that might be applicable to human cancer prevention. To provide a basis for more quantitative analyses of the effect of tea on carcinogenesis, the levels of tea polyphenols in blood, urine and tissue samples have been analyzed, and the pharmacokinetic properties of tea polyphenols studied. Studies with cell lines have demonstrated that tea polyphenols affect signal transduction pathways, inhibit cell proliferation and induce apoptosis, but the effective concentrations are usually much higher than those observed in blood and tissues. More mechanistic studies in these areas will help us to understand the inhibitory action of tea against carcinogenesis and provide background for evaluating the effects of tea consumption on human carcinogenesis.