Coffee use has consistently been associated with lower serum liver enzyme levels and a reduced risk of liver cirrhosis. A limited number of cohort and case-control studies also suggest a decreased risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) among coffee drinkers, but mostly without consideration of hepatitis virus infection. In the present case-control study, we recruited 209 incident HCC cases and three different controls (1308 community controls, 275 hospital controls, and 381 patients with chronic liver disease [CLD] without HCC), all of whom were aged 40-79 years and residents of Saga Prefecture, Japan. A questionnaire survey elicited information on coffee use during the last 1-2 years and 10 years before, and plasma hepatitis B surface antigen and antibodies to hepatitis C virus were tested for all but community controls. After adjustment for sex, age, heavy alcohol use, smoking status and hepatitis virus markers (except for community controls), coffee use during the last 1-2 years was associated with a decreased risk against any control group. For coffee use 10 years before, comparison between HCC cases and either community controls or CLD patients revealed a decreased risk; adjusted odds ratios for occasional use, 1-2 cups/day and > or =3 cups/day compared with no use were 0.33, 0.27 and 0.22 (P trend < 0.001), respectively, against community controls, and 0.86, 0.62 and 0.53 (P trend = 0.05), respectively, against CLD patients. These results suggest that coffee may protect against the development of HCC, yet further elaborate studies (hopefully, intervention studies) are warranted to corroborate these findings.