Forty patients with widely disseminated or locally advanced malignant obstruction of the middle or lower third of the oesophagus underwent endoscopic treatment by either NdYAG laser recanalization or intubation. Groups were matched on the basis of tumour location and swallowing was graded clinically before and after treatment. Technical success was achieved in 17 of 20 laser treated and 18 of 20 intubated patients. Pretreatment swallowing ability, histology, tumour location and overall length were unrelated to functional outcome in both groups. However, circumferential tumour length identified endoscopically strongly influenced the quality of swallowing after laser recanalization. Patients with excellent swallowing quality (n = 7) had significantly shorter circumferential tumour lengths, 3.1(1.0) cm, than those with poorer quality swallowing (n = 10), 6.3(1.6)cm, (P less than 0.001). Both methods of treatment had low complication rates and there was one death in the series in the laser-treated group. Laser recanalization provides a better functional result than intubation for short (less than 4 cm) circumferential tumour. Intubation at a single session seems more appropriate than repeated laser therapy when tumour length exceeds 4 cm.