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Introducing an organized mammographic screening programme affects the breast cancer incidence rate in a population. The diagnosis is advanced in time, and initially, an increase will occur in the number of cases, followed by a drop in the rate when women leave the programme. The aim of this study was to quantify the potential effects that mammographic screening programmes have on breast cancer incidence. In addition, we wanted to investigate how the incidence of breast cancer varies between different birth cohorts, age groups and time periods in the five Nordic countries Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, adjusting for the effects of the screening programmes. Time trends were analysed over the period 1978–1997, using age–period–cohort models. In Sweden, the rates more than doubled (relative risk (RR)=2.20, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.8–2.6) in women offered screening for the first time compared with women not offered screening. The risk remained elevated (RR=1.34, 95% CI 1.2–1.6) for women who were continued to be offered screening, compared with women who were not offered screening. Finally, the rates dropped (RR=0.68, 95% CI 0.6–0.8) when the women left the programme. This indicates that screening advances the time of diagnosis, which is a prerequisite to subsequent reduction in mortality. Analysis of secular trends, corrected for the influence of screening, showed that the rates in Finland increased by 13% per 5-year period, with a more modest increase in the other countries. There were strong cohort effects in all Nordic countries, and the risk seemed to be flattening for the youngest cohorts in most of the countries.