Upward trends in incidence and mortality from primary liver cancer have been reported from Japan, the USA and a few European countries. Thus, we systematically reviewed trends in age-standardised death certification rates from primary liver cancer between 1970 and 1996 in 20 European countries providing data for the World Health Organisation database. Overall age-standardised (world population) mortality rates were approximately stable or showed no consistent trends in seven countries, including Bulgaria and Hungary (with exceedingly high rates), Finland, The Netherlands and the UK. Moderate rises were observed in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and much larger upward trends in France and Italy, particularly for males. Downward trends were observed in both sexes in Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Greece and several Scandinavian countries. The per cent change in rates per year ranged, for males, from -7.4% for Ireland and -5.1% for Spain to +4.4% for Italy and +8.6% for France. Trends were more favourable in women, with 15 out of 20 countries showing downward trends in rates, and moderately more favourable in middle age (45-64 years) and, in major European countries, in young adults (20-44 years of age). In conclusion, trends in liver cancer mortality in Europe are heterogeneous. The fall in mortality in countries like Spain may be largely explained by improvements in the distinction between primary and secondary liver neoplasms, whereas upward trends in Central Europe and Italy are likely to be, at least in part, real. Increases in infection with the hepatitis C virus, and improved and increased searches for liver cancer in cirrhotic patients are two of the likeliest explanations for these observations.