Academics have even called for random testing as University of Auckland survey shows Ritalin most used.
New Zealand university students are turning to potentially harmful drugs to get ahead in their studies, new research shows.
In a survey of University of Auckland students, 6 per cent said they had used "cognitive enhancer" drugs to try to boost concentration and exam marks.
The most commonly reported drug used among the 400 students surveyed was Ritalin, which is prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The issue of "academic doping" is a growing concern overseas, with some research having found that as many as 25 per cent of students in American universities take off-label drugs to help them focus.
Academics have even called for random drug testing and a New Zealand student has been charged with supplying classmates.
Dr Bruce Russell, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland's school of pharmacy and an author of the survey, said it shed light on the possible extent of the issue here.
"The result of this study probably isn't as high as you would expect based on overseas reports ... but I think that's partly due to access."
When so-called cognitive enhancers are taken occasionally and in low doses the risk to health is low. However, risks such as cardiovascular complaints and anxiety can increase if the drugs are taken without guidance and above therapeutic levels.
Dr Russell said he was concerned "that people will use cognitive enhancers to the point where they perceive a need for them and then use them in an almost addictive manner".
There are also a range of ethical questions surrounding the use of the drugs, he said, such as whether "their use [is] the equivalent of cheating like the use of anabolic steroids ... at the Olympics? Who should have access to them? Should it only be those who can afford them?"
Auckland University Students' Association president Cate Bell said the use of such drugs demonstrates the pressure that students are under as they try to combine work with full-time study.
"It doesn't surprise us but it does concern us and we don't expect those numbers to decrease until more support is given to students who are studying," she said.
A spokeswoman for the University of Auckland said it has no position about the use of cognitive enhancers by the student population.
Around 12,000 people received prescriptions for stimulants used to treat ADHD in the year to June 2013.
Any attempt to on-sell a controlled drug or to obtain it without a prescription is a crime under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and it is illegal for controlled drugs to be imported by members of the public.
In March, a student who admitted supplying Ritalin to University of Otago classmates had his conviction and sentence quashed by the Court of Appeal, which found his offending to be "at the low end".
Dr Russell said he was interested in finding out whether New Zealand students were using Modafinil, which has become popular overseas, but none were - possibly because at this stage Modafinil is rarely prescribed and not funded by Pharmac.
• One in 16 University of Auckland students surveyed said they had used "cognitive enhancer" drugs to boost concentration.
• The most commonly reported drug was Ritalin, which is prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
• Rates are even higher in countries such as the United States, leading to debate on whether random drug testing is necessary.
• Users have said they feel more energetic and focused. Medical professionals worry students could come to rely on such a boost.