OBJECTIVE: To assess the effectiveness of multiple risk factor intervention in reducing cardiovascular risk factors, total mortality, and mortality from coronary heart disease among adults. DESIGN: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials in workforces and in primary care in which subjects were randomly allocated to more than one of six interventions (stopping smoking, exercise, dietary advice, weight control, antihypertensive drugs, and cholesterol lowering drugs) and followed up for at least six months. SUBJECTS: Adults aged 17-73 years, 903000 person years of observation were included in nine trials with clinical event outcomes and 303000 person years in five trials with risk factor outcomes alone. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Changes in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, smoking rates, blood cholesterol concentrations, total mortality, and mortality from coronary heart disease. RESULTS: Net decreases in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, smoking prevalence, and blood cholesterol were 4.2 mm Hg (SE 0.19 mm Hg), 2.7 mm Hg (0.09 mm Hg), 4.2% (0.3%), and 0.14 mmol/l (0.01 mmol/l) respectively. In the nine trials with clinical event end points the pooled odds ratios for total and coronary heart disease mortality were 0.97 (95% confidence interval 0.92 to 1.02) and 0.96 (0.88 to 1.04) respectively. Statistical heterogeneity between the studies with respect to changes in mortality and risk factors was due to trials focusing on hypertensive participants and those using considerable amounts of drug treatment, with only these trials showing significant reductions in mortality. CONCLUSIONS: The pooled effects of multiple risk factor intervention on mortality were insignificant and a small, but potentially important, benefit of treatment (about a 10% reduction in mortality) may have been missed. Changes in risk factors were modest, were related to the amount of pharmacological treatment used, and in some cases may have been overestimated because of regression to the mean, lack of intention to treat analyses, habituation to blood pressure measurement, and use of self reports of smoking. Interventions using personal or family counselling and education with or without pharmacological treatments seem to be more effective at reducing risk factors and therefore mortality in high risk hypertensive populations. The evidence suggests that such interventions implemented through standard health education methods have limited use in the general population. Health protection through fiscal and legislative measure may be more effective.