OBJECTIVE--To assess the risk of death associated with various patterns of alcohol consumption. DESIGN--Prospective study of mortality in relation to alcohol drinking habits in 1978, with causes of death sought over the next 13 years (to 1991). SUBJECTS--12,321 British male doctors born between 1900 and 1930 (mean 1916) who replied to a postal questionnaire in 1978. Those written to in 1978 were the survivors of a long running prospective study of the effects of smoking that had begun in 1951 and was still continuing. RESULTS--Men were divided on the basis of their response to the 1978 questionnaire into two groups according to whether or not they had ever had any type of vascular disease, diabetes, or "life threatening disease" and into seven groups according to the amount of alcohol they drank. By 1991 almost a third had died. All statistical analyses of mortality were standardised for age, calendar year, and smoking habit. There was a U shaped relation between all cause mortality and the average amount of alcohol reportedly drunk; those who reported drinking 8-14 units of alcohol a week (corresponding to an average of one to two units a day) had the lowest risks. The causes of death were grouped into three main categories: "alcohol augmented" causes (6% of all deaths: cirrhosis, liver cancer, upper aerodigestive (mouth, oesophagus, larynx, and pharynx) cancer, alcoholism, poisoning, or injury), ischaemic heart disease (33% of all deaths), and other causes. The few deaths from alcohol augmented causes showed, at least among regular drinkers, a progressive trend, with the risk increasing with dose. In contrast, the many deaths from ischaemic heart disease showed no significant trend among regular drinkers, but there were significantly lower rates in regular drinkers than in non-drinkers. The aggregate of all other causes showed a U shaped dose-response relation similar to that for all cause mortality. Similar differences persisted irrespective of a history of previous disease, age (under 75 or 75 and older), and period of follow up (first five and last eight years). Some, but apparently not much, of the excess mortality in non-drinkers could be attributed to the inclusion among them of a small proportion of former drinkers. CONCLUSION--The consumption of alcohol appeared to reduce the risk of ischaemic heart disease, largely irrespective of amount. Among regular drinkers mortality from all causes combined increased progressively with amount drunk above 21 units a week. Among British men in middle or older age the consumption of an average of one or two units of alcohol a day is associated with significantly lower all cause mortality than is the consumption of no alcohol, or the consumption of substantial amounts. Above about three units (two American units) of alcohol a day, progressively greater levels of consumption are associated with progressively higher all cause mortality.