The purpose of our study was to examine the incidence patterns of 2 major histologic types of esophageal cancer, in selected countries world-wide and to identify components of birth cohort, period and age as determinants of observed time trends using regression modeling. The roles of temporal changes in specification of histology of tumors and of classification of cancers at the gastroesophageal junction as esophageal or gastric in origin were taken into consideration. In all, 56,426 esophageal cancer cases were included. The results indicate that the incidence rate of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus has been relatively stable in most of the countries analyzed, although increasing trends were observed in Denmark and the Netherlands (Eindhoven) among men and in Canada, Scotland and Switzerland among women. There was a significant increase in the incidence of esophageal adenocarcinomas in both sexes in the United States (among whites and blacks), Canada and South Australia and in 6 European countries (Scotland, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway). In France the increase was limited to men and in Switzerland the increase was observed only in women. Modeling was unable to distinguish which trends were the results of changes in risk between generations (as cohort effects), or changes in all age groups simultaneously (as a period effect). © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.