New Zealand’s Ministry of Health is due to announce “within weeks” whether it will continue to allow pharmaceutical manufacturers to advertise prescription drugs direct to the public.

Currently, New Zealand and the USA are the world’s only developed countries which allow direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs, but New Zealand and Australia are currently setting up a joint agency, the Australia New Zealand Therapeutic Products Authority (ANZTPA), which will regulate medicines in both countries, and Australia does not permit DTC advertising.

NZ Health Minister Pete Hodgson’s office said this month that a decision would be announced shortly, but gave no clues as to whether the government was planning tighter regulation or an outright ban.

The latter would be welcomed by agencies such as the Public Health Association, whose director, Dr Gay Keating, says there is evidence that DTC ads cause harm.

Her concerns include patients putting pressure on doctors to prescribe specific medicines and “normalising” the use of medicine to improve health instead of lifestyle changes.

“There is a risk that people will purchase pharmaceuticals based not on what is best for their health, but on which company produces the most convincing advertisements. Rather than provide people with independent information on the risks and benefits, DTC advertising focuses on creating a demand for specific products,” said Dr Keating. “People may end up paying for medicines that they don’t need, and that in the worst case scenario, may actually be harmful to them,” she added.

However, the opposition centre-right National Party has warned that a ban could threaten the viability of the pharmaceutical industry in New Zealand, make sponsorship of events by drug companies illegal and see a decline in industry-funded research.

Consumers also have a right to know that medicines are available and can be accessed, said National’s health spokesman, Tony Ryall. “Surely we want a health system where people can make choices and play a role in their own healthcare,” he added.

However, Mr Ryall also pointed out that, while people like to know the drugs are available, they also want more information about the risks and benefits of advertised drugs. ‘That is a message the pharmaceutical advertisers should take on board,” he warned.

Drugmakers in New Zealand are estimated to spend around NZ$10 million a year on DTC advertising, which began in the country nine years ago.