Esophageal cancer has constituted a major public health problem in Uruguay, with age-adjusted death rates of 14.5 X 10(5) for males and of 3.8 X 10(5) for females. A case-control study was undertaken to ascertain the possible association of the local custom of drinking infusions of Ilex paraguariensis ("maté") with cancer of the esophagus, after controlling for well-known risk factors, such as alcohol and tobacco consumption. Two hundred twenty-six patients with esophageal cancer and 469 controls (control:case = 2.1) were interviewed at the time of admission or consultation at the Oncology Institute of Montevideo from 1979 through 1984. Males showed elevated risks of esophageal cancer associated with heavy tobacco [relative risk (RR) = 10.8] and alcohol (RR = 10.3) exposures. Among females, the independent effects of tobacco and alcohol were nonsignificant. Maté consumption had an independent effect in both males and females, with odds ratios of 6.5 and 34.6, respectively, for heavy users. Moreover, a well-defined dose response was evident in both sexes.