Trends in age-standardized death certification rates from all causes, coronary heart disease (CHD), cerebrovascular diseases, all neoplasms and lung cancer were analysed over the period 1980-1993 in 20 major European countries. There were steady and substantial declines of overall mortality in all western European countries for both sexes, although appreciable geographic differences persisted. These favourable trends reflect a decline in CHD mortality in most western countries, besides a persisting fall in cerebrovascular disease, and a substantial stability (with some decline in a few northern and central European countries) in cancer mortality. In contrast, in eastern European countries appreciable rises were registered in mortality from major causes of death considered for males. For females, only moderate declines were observed in Eastern Europe. In the early 1990s, overall mortality was 30 to 100% higher for males and 20 to 100% higher for females as compared to Western Europe. As indicated by the trends in lung cancer death rates, this reflects a major impact of the tobacco-related disease epidemic in subsequent cohorts, as well as more unfavourable lifestyle factors (i.e. aspects of diet, other environmental factors), and a delayed control of hypertension in Eastern Europe, together with a substantial excess of suicides, (road) accidents, homicides and alcohol-related diseases, and the delayed introduction of rational treatment for some conditions. An indication of reversal of mortality trends was evident in the early 1990s only in Poland. In conclusion, there is ample scope for intervention on avoidable mortality in eastern European countries.