Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) are extensively used in case-control studies of practically all cancer types. They are used for the identification of inherited cancer susceptibility genes and those that may interact with environmental factors. However, being genetic markers, they are applicable only on heritable conditions, which is often a neglected fact. Based on the data in the nationwide Swedish Family-Cancer Database, we review familial risks for all main cancers and discuss the evidence for a heritable component in cancer. The available evidence is not conclusive but it is consistent in pointing to a minor heritable etiology in cancer, which will hamper the success of SNP-based association studies. Empirical familial risks should be used as guidance for the planning of SNP studies. We provide calculations for the assessment of familial risks for assumed allele frequencies and gene effects (odds ratios) for different modes of inheritance. Based on these data, we discuss the gene effects that could account for the unexplained proportion of familial breast and lung cancer. As a conclusion, we are concerned about the indiscriminate use of a genetic tool to cancers, which are mainly environmental in origin. We consider the likelihood of a successful application of SNPs in gene-environment studies small, unless established environmental risk factors are tested on proven candidate genes.