Risk factors associated with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are well documented, but the synergisms between these risk factors are not well examined. We conducted a hospital-based, case-control study among 115 HCC patients and 230 non-liver cancer controls. Cases and controls were pathologically diagnosed at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and were matched by 5-year age groups, sex, and year of diagnosis. Information on risk factors was collected by personal interview and medical records review. Blood samples were tested for the presence of antibodies to hepatitis C virus antigen (anti-HCV), hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), and antibodies to hepatitis B core antigen (anti-HBc). Conditional logistic regression was used to determine odds ratios (ORs) by the maximum likelihood method. Multivariate ORs and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were 15.3 (4.3-54.4), 12.6 (2.5-63.1), 4.5 (1.4-14.8), and 4.3 (1.9-9.9) for anti-HCV, HBsAg, heavy alcohol consumption (>/=80 mL ethanol/d), and diabetes mellitus, respectively. Synergistic interactions on the additive model were observed between heavy alcohol consumption and chronic hepatitis virus infection (OR, 53.9; 95% CI, 7.0-415.7) and diabetes mellitus (OR, 9.9; 95% CI, 2.5-39.3). Independent of the effect of HCV, HBV, and diabetes mellitus, heavy alcohol consumption contributes to the majority of HCC cases (32%), whereas 22%, 16%, and 20% were explained by HCV, HBV, and diabetes mellitus, respectively. In conclusion, the significant synergy between heavy alcohol consumption, hepatitis virus infection, and diabetes mellitus may suggest a common pathway for hepatocarcinogenesis. Exploring the underlying mechanisms for such synergisms may indicate new HCC prevention strategies in high-risk individuals.