In a double-blind, double-dummy, cross-over, multicentre study, 141 patients with moderate reversible airways disease were randomized to receive either 50 micrograms salmeterol via a metered dose inhaler or individually dose-titrated oral theophylline, both twice daily for a 2-week period. Just over half (n = 77) the patients had received theophylline before, but 64 patients were new to theophylline therapy. Efficacy was based on lung function data and symptom scores. Salmeterol produced significantly higher increase in mean morning peak expiratory flow (PEF) of 161 min-1 (P < 0.001; 95% Confidence Interval (CI); 8-241 min-1) and mean evening PEF of 151 min-1 (p < 0.001; 95% CI; 7-221 min-1) compared with theophylline therapy. Further analysis of the data revealed that the increase in PEF with salmeterol compared with theophylline was highest in a sub-group of patients new to theophylline therapy. Patients on salmeterol had significantly less night-time awakenings than those on theophylline (P = 0.011) and significantly less daytime symptoms (P = 0.017). There was also a significant increase in the number of nights (P = 0.013) and days (P < 0.001) on salmeterol when no additional salbutamol was required compared with theophylline. Theophylline produced a higher incidence of adverse events compared with salmeterol. The results of this study show that inhaled salmeterol is more effective and better tolerated than individually dose-titrated oral theophylline over a 2-week study period in patients with moderate asthma.