The aim of this randomized, open, parallel group study was to compare the clinical efficacy of formoterol dry powder capsule 12 micrograms b.i.d. and salmeterol dry powder 50 micrograms b.i.d. in the treatment of patients with reversible obstructive airways disease. The 6-month treatment was preceded by a 2 week run-in period. Morning pre-dose peak expiratory flow (PEF) during the last 7 days of treatment was the primary variable. Throughout the study, patients recorded morning and evening pre-dose PEF, use of rescue medication, respiratory symptoms and adverse events. Clinic visits were scheduled at monthly intervals. Of the 482 patients randomized (equal numbers in the two treatment groups), 428 completed the study. Four hundred and twenty-five patients were included in the efficacy analysis for the primary variable. For mean morning pre-dose PEF during the last 7 days of treatment, the 95% confidence interval (CI) for the treatment contrast formoterol minus salmeterol was included entirely in the pre-defined range of equivalence (CI limits = -8.69, +9.841 min-1). This was also the case for the morning PEF during the last week before each clinic visit. For mean evening pre-dose PEF, the estimated treatment contrasts showed a trend towards superiority of formoterol over salmeterol, which became statistically significant at 2, 3 and 4 months (P < 0.05; estimated contrasts 7.27, 10.45 and 10.511 min-1, respectively). No treatment group differences were found in use of rescue medication and respiratory symptom scores. The incidence of adverse events was similar in the two groups. These findings demonstrate that formoterol 12 micrograms b.i.d. and salmeterol 50 micrograms b.i.d., both formulated as dry powders, have similar long-term efficacy and safety profiles in patients with reversible obstructive airways disease.