Estimating exposure–outcome associations using laterality information on exposure and on outcome is an issue, when estimating associations of mobile phone use and brain tumour risk. The exposure is localized; therefore, a potential risk is expected to exist primarily on the side of the head, where the phone is usually held (ipsilateral exposure), and to a lesser extent at the opposite side of the head (contralateral exposure). Several measures of the associations with ipsilateral and contralateral exposure, dealing with different sampling designs, have been presented in the literature. This paper presents a general framework for the analysis of such studies using a likelihood-based approach in a competing risks model setting. The approach clarifies the implicit assumptions required for the validity of the presented estimators, particularly that in some approaches the risk with contralateral exposure is assumed to be zero. The performance of the estimators is illustrated in a simulation study showing for instance that while in some scenarios there is a loss of statistical power, others — in case of a positive ipsilateral exposure–outcome association — would result in a negatively biased estimate of the contralateral exposure parameter, irrespective of any additional recall bias. In conclusion, our theoretical evaluations and results from the simulation study emphasize the importance of setting up a formal model, which furthermore allows for estimation in more complicated and perhaps more realistic exposure settings, such as taking into account exposure to both sides of the head. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.