BACKGROUND: The Northern California county of Marin (MC) has historically had high breast cancer incidence rates. Because of MC’s high socioeconomic status (SES) and racial homogeneity (non-Hispanic White), it has been difficult to assess whether these elevated rates result from a combination of established risk factors or other behavioral or environmental factors. This survey was designed to compare potential breast cancer risks and incidence rates for a sample of middle-aged MC women with those of a demographically similar population. METHODS: A random sample of 1500 middle-aged female members of a large Northern California health plan, half from Marin County (MC) and half from a comparison area in East/Central Contra Costa County (ECCC), were mailed a survey covering family history, reproductive history, use of oral contraceptives (OC) and hormone replacement therapy (HRT), behavioral health risks, recency of breast screening, and demographic characteristics. Weighted data were used to compare prevalence of individual breast cancer risk factors and Gail scores. Age-adjusted cumulative breast cancer incidence rates (2000-2004) were also calculated for female health plan members aged 40-64 residing in the two geographic areas. RESULTS: Survey response was 57.1% (n = 427) and 47.9% (n = 359) for MC and ECCC samples, respectively. Women in the two areas were similar in SES, race, obesity, exercise frequency, current smoking, ever use of OCs and HRT, age at onset of menarche, high mammography rates, family history of breast cancer, and Gail scores. However, MC women were significantly more likely than ECCC women to be former smokers (43.6% vs. 31.2%), have Ashkenazi Jewish heritage (12.8% vs. 7.1%), have no live births before age 30 (52.7% vs. 40.8%), and be nulliparous (29.2% vs. 15.4%), and less likely to never or rarely consume alcohol (34.4% vs. 41.9%). MC and ECCC women had comparable 2000-2004 invasive breast cancer incidence rates. CONCLUSION: The effects of reproductive risks factors, Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, smoking history, and alcohol consumption with regard to breast cancer risk in Marin County should be further evaluated. When possible, future comparisons of breast cancer incidence rates between regions should adjust for differences in income and education in addition to age and race/ethnicity, preferably by using a sociodemographically similar comparison group.