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The ban on pseudoephedrine: lessons for changing public policy



Blackland traced how pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in cold remedies came to be banned. We undertake such studies to inform our advice to clients on how public policy happens in the messy real world.


We found that the ban was almost entirely the result of a national moral panic over methamphetamine. The panic peaked in 2009 with a sword attack by meth addict Antonie Dixon, and a widely published photo of how he looked when in Court. The panic pushed politicians to support the ban idea, mooted in previous years by pharmacists and moral entrepreneurs. The idea had been rejected by officials, experts, and politicians, over the previous decade, citing the likelihood of it having no effect, and usefulness in treatment.


As they had predicted, the ban did not work. Methamphetamine supply grew in volume and purity, along with crime and deaths. Meaning NZers had to suffer through 100m colds, wasting over $100m on the replacement treatment phenylephrine – which is less effective than placebo.

Compounding the issue, monitoring of success measurements was stopped after only a few years (2015). They had constantly shown that the ban had no impact on meth supply. A recommended review was never carried out. 


The lessons are:

  • The weight of widespread emotional reaction, particularly fear, can overcome established, rational, logical and evidenced policy.

  • Emotions can silence or quieten those who would otherwise speak or provide argument and evidence against the idea – such as subject experts.

  • Emotions can encourage some specialists or commentators, made credible by association with the topic, into ‘moral opportunitism’ – supporting the idea for the greater profile it brings them and their objectives.

  • This is most likely in a period of political change, such as a new Government, when decision-makers are least experienced and most motivated to respond to public sentiment and ‘do something’.

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