In a population-based case-control study of women younger than 45 years of age, we obtained a detailed lifetime history of alcohol use to evaluate the effects of drinking during different periods of life in relation to breast cancer risk. This analysis focused on interviews obtained from 1,645 cases and 1,497 controls. Breast cancer risk was not influenced by drinking during the teenage years or early adulthood. Contemporary drinking (that is, average intake during the recent 5-year interval) was directly associated with risk, but the adverse effect of recent drinking was restricted to women who consumed > or = 14 drinks per week [relative risk (RR) = 1.7; 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.2-2.5]. The effect of alcohol was most pronounced among women with advanced disease. Compared with nondrinkers, the risk estimate associated with recent consumption of > or = 14 drinks per week was 2.4 (95% CI = 1.6-3.8) for women with regional/distant disease. Our data add support to the accumulating evidence that alcohol consumption is associated with increased risk of breast cancer and further indicate that alcohol acts at a late stage in breast carcinogenesis.