BACKGROUND: The long acting beta 2 agonist formoterol has proved to be an effective bronchodilator with a prolonged action of 12-14 hours. However, the precise role of formoterol in the maintenance treatment of asthma is still under debate. A study was performed to investigate the efficacy and safety of treatment with formoterol for six months in subjects with asthma. METHODS: In a multicentre double blind, placebo controlled, parallel group study 239 subjects with mild to moderate asthma were randomly assigned to treatment with either inhaled formoterol 24 micrograms twice daily (n = 125) or placebo (n = 114) during eight months. The study consisted of a four week run in period, a 24 week treatment period, and a four week washout period. All subjects were using regular inhaled corticosteroids (100-3200 micrograms daily) but were still needing at least five inhalations of short acting beta 2 agonist per week for symptom relief. The study was performed in 10 outpatient clinics in Canada, and five outpatient clinics and one coordinating centre for 44 Dutch general practitioners in The Netherlands. Twice daily self-reported peak expiratory flow (PEF) measurements, symptom scores, and rescue beta 2 agonist use during the last 28 treatment days compared with baseline values were used as main outcome measures. Spirometric values were measured at entry, at the start of treatment, after four, 12 and 24 weeks of treatment, and after four weeks washout. RESULTS: One hundred and twenty five subjects received formoterol 24 micrograms twice daily via Turbohaler and 114 received placebo. Baseline FEV1 was 67.1% predicted and mean bronchodilator reversibility was 26%. The mean total asthma symptom score was 3.6 (maximum possible 21). A significant decrease in symptoms in favour of formoterol (difference from placebo -0.64, 95% CI -0.04 to -1.23, p = 0.04) was observed. Compared with placebo, morning PEF increased (difference from placebo 28 l/min, 95% CI 18.3 to 37.7, p = 0.0001) and the use of short acting beta 1 agonists decreased (daytime difference from placebo -1.1 inhalation, 95% CI -1.4 to -0.7, p = 0.0001) in the formoterol group. PEF returned to baseline following discontinuation of formoterol, as did asthma symptom scores. Thirty three patients treated with formoterol and 32 treated with placebo required treatment with prednisolone during the study (58 and 55 courses, respectively). CONCLUSIONS: Adding formoterol 24 micrograms twice daily by Turbohaler to inhaled corticosteroids was effective in improving symptom scores and morning PEF, and decreasing the use of rescue beta 2 agonists. There was no apparent loss of asthma control during 24 weeks of treatment with formoterol.