Cancer of the oesophagus has great diversity in geographical distribution and incidence. The rate of oesophageal cancer has been increasing in some areas and the reasons for this are not clear. This review outlines fascinating epidemiological aspects and the risk factor for squamous cell carcinoma of the oesophagus. While in the Western world the effects of alcohol and tobacco are substantial preconditions, worldwide other factors, such as diet, nutritional deficiencies, environmental exposure and infectious agents (especially papillomavirus and fungi), play a significant role. Chronic irritation of the oesophagus appears to participate in the process of carcinogenesis, particularly in patients with thermal and/or mechanical injury, achalasia, oesophageal diverticulum, chronic lye stricture, radiation therapy, injection sclerotherapy and gastric resection before the appearance of oesophageal tumour. The association of Plummer-Vinson syndrome, coeliac disease, tylosis and scleroderma with oesophageal cancer has also been reviewed.