Descriptive epidemiology of oral and pharyngeal cancer over the last four decades is reviewed, with specific focus on Europe. Substantial rises in mortality rates have been observed for younger males, mostly in eastern Europe. The independent role of alcohol and tobacco and their interaction on oral carcinogenesis is discussed, since these factors account for about three quarters of oral cancers in Europe. The influence of dietary factors, and in particular of a diet poor in fresh fruit and vegetables on oral carcinogenesis, is also discussed, since diet may account for 10-15% of oral cancer cases in Europe. Finally, among other carcinogens, the possibility of human papillomavirus involvement in the aetiology of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx is overviewed. Implications for prevention are discussed.