STUDY OBJECTIVE--The study investigated the joint effect of body mass index and systolic blood pressure on cardiovascular and total mortality. DESIGN--This was a prospective cohort study. The main outcome measures were age adjusted mortality and relative risks estimated from survival models. SETTING--The population of the city of Bergen, Norway. PARTICIPANTS--Subjects were 21,145 men and 30,330 women aged 30-79 years at the time of examination in 1963. MAIN RESULTS--Both cause specific and all cause mortality increased with systolic blood pressure within each category of body mass index. Stroke mortality was not significantly associated with body mass index when adjusted for systolic blood pressure in either age group of men or women. Coronary heart disease mortality increased on average 30% per 5 kg/m2 increase in body mass index in men and women aged 30-59 years at baseline. Adjusted for systolic blood pressure, the relative risks were reduced to 1.20 (95% confidence interval (CI) 1.12, 1.29) in men and 1.10 (95% CI 1.03, 1.18) in women. They were similar at each level of systolic blood pressure. For coronary heart disease mortality in men and women aged 60-79 years at measurement a negative interaction between body mass index and systolic blood pressure was suggested in the first five years. Excluding the first five years, adjusted relative risks per 5 kg/m2, were 1.05 (95% CI 0.96, 1.15) in men and 1.11 (95% CI 1.04, 1.17) in women in the older age group. There was an upturn in cardiovascular mortality at low levels of body mass index in both age groups of women, but not in men. CONCLUSIONS--Hypertension is an important risk factor for cardiovascular and all cause mortality even in the obese. Body mass index is generally a weak predictor of cardiovascular mortality in this population. It is a stronger risk factor of coronary death in men when measured at a younger age. Thin people with hypertension are not at particularly high risk of death from coronary heart disease compared with their obese counterparts, except possibly in the first few years after measurement in the elderly. Being underweight is associated with increased risk of death from all cardiovascular causes in women, but not in men.