Mortality rates from kidney cancer increased throughout Europe up until the late 1980s or early 1990s. Trends in western European countries, the European Union (EU) and selected central and eastern European countries have been updated using official death certification data for kidney cancer abstracted from the World Health Organisation (WHO) database over the period 1980–1999. In EU men, death rates increased from 3.92 per 100 000 (age standardised, world standard) in 1980–81 to 4.63 in 1994–95, and levelled off at 4.15 thereafter. In women, corresponding values were 1.86 in 1980–81, 2.04 in 1994–95 and 1.80 in 1998–99. Thus, the fall in kidney cancer mortality over the last 5 years was over 10% for both sexes in the EU. The largest falls were in countries with highest mortality in the early 1990s, such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. Kidney cancer rates levelled off, but remained very high, in the Czech Republic, Baltic countries, Hungary, Poland and other central European countries. Thus, in the late 1990s, a greater than three-fold difference in kidney cancer mortality was observed between the highest rates in the Czech Republic, the Baltic Republics and Hungary, and the lowest ones in Romania, Portugal and Greece. Tobacco smoking is the best recognised risk factor for kidney cancer, and the recent trends in men, mainly in western Europe, can be related to a reduced prevalence of smoking among men. Tobacco, however, cannot account for the recent trends registered in women.