Cancer has been a growing public health problem throughout the last century. Cancer mortality rates in both sexes combined in the European Union (EU) reached a peak in 1988. Thereafter, they declined by 9.4% in 1998. Likewise, lung cancer rates in the EU for both sexes combined increased by 58% between 1960 and 1988, but declined by 14% in 1998. Over a third of the decline was accounted for by lung cancer alone and approximately half by the combination of tobacco-related neoplasms. About half of the decline in total cancer mortality not attributable to tobacco derived from the steady fall in mortality from gastric cancer. The remaining half, including favourable trends in colorectal, breast, testis and lymphoid neoplasms, can be at least in part attributed to advancements in cancer diagnosis and treatment. The major causes of cancer and hence the most important priorities for research will be reviewed, with a specific focus on European priorities for research.