The relation of cigarette smoking and alcohol drinking to colorectal cancer risk has been inconsistent in the epidemiological literature. In a population-based case-control study of colorectal cancer in Shanghai, China, where the incidence rates are rising sharply, we examined the association with tobacco and alcohol use. Cases were aged 30-74 years and newly diagnosed with cancers of the colon (N = 931) or rectum (N = 874) between 1990 and 1992. Controls (N = 1552) were randomly selected among Shanghai residents, frequency-matched to cases by gender and age. Information on lifetime consumption of tobacco and alcohol, as well as demographic and other risk factors, was obtained through in-person interviews. Associations with cigarette smoking and alcohol use were estimated by odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Among women, the prevalence of smoking and alcohol drinking was low, and no significant association with colon or rectal cancer was observed. Although cigarette smoking among men was not related overall to colon or rectal cancer risk, there was a 50% excess risk of rectal cancer (OR 1.5, 95% CI 0.9-2.5) among those who smoked 55 or more pack-years. Among men, former alcohol drinkers had an increased risk of colon cancer (OR 2.3, 95% CI 1.4-3.7) but not rectal cancer, while current drinkers had a 30-50% excess risk of colon cancer only among those with long-term (30+ years) and heavy (>560 g ethanol/week) consumption. The excess risks were mainly associated with hard liquor consumption, with no material difference in risk between proximal and distal colon cancer. Although cigarette smoking and alcohol drinking in general were not risk factors for colorectal cancers in Shanghai, there were small excess risks for rectal cancer among heavy smokers and colon cancer among heavy drinkers.