Data on antibiotic use are not publicly available in most European Union countries. We obtained data for non-hospital antibiotic sales for 1997 from the 15 member states and analysed these according to the Anatomic Therapeutic Chemical classification system, and expressed them as defined daily doses per 1000 people per day. Sales of antibiotics varied more than four-fold: France (36.5), Spain (32.4), Portugal (28.8), and Belgium (26.7) had the highest sales, whereas the Netherlands (8.9), Denmark (11.3), Sweden (13.5), and Germany (13.6) had the lowest. There was also profound variation in use of different classes of antibiotics. Detailed knowledge of antibiotic use is necessary to implement national strategies for optimum antibiotic use, and to address the threat posed by resistant microorganisms.