Oral, pharyngeal and esophageal cancers are 3 of the 5 most common cancer sites in Indian men. To assess the effect of different patterns of smoking, chewing and alcohol drinking in the development of the above 3 neoplasms and to determine the interaction among these habits, we conducted a case-control study in Chennai and Trivandrum, South India. The cases included 1,563 oral, 636 pharyngeal and 566 esophageal male cancer patients who were compared with 1,711 male disease controls from the 2 centers as well as 1,927 male healthy hospital visitors from Chennai. We observed a significant dose-response relationship for duration and amount of consumption of the 3 habits with the development of the 3 neoplasms. Tobacco chewing emerged as the strongest risk factor for oral cancer, with the highest odds ratio (OR) for chewing products containing tobacco of 5.05 [95% confidence internal (CI) 4.26–5.97]. The strongest risk factor for pharyngeal and esophageal cancers was tobacco smoking, with ORs of 4.00 (95% CI 3.07–5.22) and 2.83 (95% CI 2.18–3.66) in current smokers, respectively. An independent increase in risk was observed for each habit in the absence of the other 2. For example, the OR of oral cancers for alcohol drinking in never smokers and never chewers was 2.56 (95% CI 1.42–4.64) and that of esophageal cancers was 3.41 (95% CI 1.46–7.99). Furthermore, significant decreases in risks for all 3 cancer sites were observed in subjects who quit smoking even among those who had quit smoking 2–4 years before the interview. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.