OBJECTIVE: To analyse trends of avoidable mortality in Europe, emphasising causes of death amenable to primary prevention through reduction of exposures, secondary prevention through early detection and treatment, and tertiary prevention through improved treatment and medical care. DESIGN: Descriptive study of mortality from avoidable causes for the years 1955 through 1994, for ages 5-64 at time of death. Using the World Health Organisation Mortality Database, five year death rates were standardised to the world population. SETTING: 21 countries of Europe in four regions (northern, central, and southern Europe, Nordic countries). PARTICIPANTS: All causes of deaths for men and women, aged 5-64, at time of death. MAIN RESULTS: Between 1955-59 and 1990-94, the reduction in mortality was somewhat greater for avoidable causes than for all causes: 45.8% v 45.1% (women) and 39.3% v 32.6% among men. Reductions in mortality were greater for causes amenable to improved medical care: 77.9% among women and 76.3% among men. The smallest reduction in mortality was seen in women for causes amenable to secondary prevention (11.0%), and in men for causes amendable to primary prevention including tobacco related conditions (16.6%). From a geographical point of view, there were slight differences in trends between European regions, but overall the patterns were similar. CONCLUSIONS: The greatest reduction of avoidable mortality in Europe from 1955-94 came from causes amenable to improved treatment and medical care for both sexes. Further reductions of avoidable mortality can be achieved through implementation of primary and secondary prevention activities, such as tobacco control, reduction of occupational exposures, and universal access to breast and cervical cancer screening programmes.