We examined the relation between consumption of different types of alcoholic beverages and the risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer, using data from a case-control study conducted in Italy and Switzerland between 1992 and 1997. This included a total of 749 cases of oral and pharyngeal cancer and 1,772 hospital controls, admitted for acute, non-neoplastic conditions, unrelated to alcohol and smoking consumption. Significant trends in risk were found with increasing total alcohol intake, with multivariate odds ratios (OR) of 2.1 for drinkers of 3-4 drinks/day, as compared to abstainers or light drinkers (< or = 2 drinks/day), 5.0 for 5-7, 12.2 for 8-11 and 21.1 for > or = 12 drinks/day. Similar increased risks for subsequent levels of consumption were found for wine drinkers. After allowance for wine intake, the ORs for beer drinkers were 1.2 for 1-2 drinks/day, and 2.3 for > or = 3 drinks/day. Corresponding values for spirit drinkers were 1.0 and 1.9. Patterns of risk for wine drinkers were similar for wine only drinkers and drinkers of wine, plus beer and spirits. Our study indicates that in populations with frequent wine consumption, wine per se can strongly increase the risk of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx, and confirms that the most prevalent alcoholic beverage in each population tends to be the one with the highest risk.