Overwhelming evidence indicates that environmental exposures, broadly defined, are responsible for most cancer. There is reason to believe, however, that relatively common polymorphisms in a wide spectrum of genes may modify the effect of these exposures. We discuss the rationale for using common polymorphisms to enhance our understanding of how environmental exposures cause cancer and comment on epidemiologic strategies to assess these effects, including study design, genetic and statistical analysis, and sample size requirements. Special attention is given to sources of potential bias in population studies of gene--environment interactions, including exposure and genotype misclassification and population stratification (i.e., confounding by ethnicity). Nevertheless, by merging epidemiologic and molecular approaches in the twenty-first century, there will be enormous opportunities for unraveling the environmental determinants of cancer. In particular, studies of genetically susceptible subgroups may enable the detection of low levels of risk due to certain common exposures that have eluded traditional epidemiologic methods. Further, by identifying susceptibility genes and their pathways of action, it may be possible to identify previously unsuspected carcinogens. Finally, by gaining a more comprehensive understanding of environmental and genetic risk factors, there should emerge new clinical and public health strategies aimed at preventing and controlling cancer.