Forty patients with histologically confirmed malignant dysphagia were randomized to either endoscopic intubation or laser recanalization. Age, sex, tumour histology and site were evenly distributed between the groups. Results were analysed on an 'intention to treat' basis. All patients treated by laser achieved patency; there was one failed intubation. The best swallowing grade achieved was significantly better with laser recanalization (median 4 (range 3-4)) than with intubation (median 3 (range 2-4)) (P < 0.001). The median survival was 21.5 (range 4-62) weeks in the group receiving laser treatment, compared with 14.5 (range 7-102) weeks in the intubated group (P = 0.09). The median inpatient stay as a proportion of survival time was 14 per cent in the group receiving laser treatment compared with 15 per cent in the intubated group (P > 0.05). The median weight loss was less in the laser-treated patients (2.0 (range 2-8) versus 3.0 (range 0-10) kg, P = 0.04). These results indicate that laser recanalization provides better palliation of dysphagia than does intubation, but this is not reflected in an improvement in survival time.