Making cold pills that can be used by criminals to make drugs available only on prescription is a better than banning them , Labour leader Phil Goff says.

Prime Minister John Key is proposing to combat the drug P by banning its main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, from use in over-the-counter cold and flu tablets.

Mr Key's first task for his chief science adviser, Professor Peter Gluckman, is to investigate "whether it is possible for New Zealand to eliminate pseudoephedrine in the making of cold and flu tablets".

Mr Goff said New Zealanders got benefit from cold pills containing the substance.

"It seems a shame that ordinary New Zealanders who can get real cold relief through tablets using pseudoephedrine should be denied that opportunity completely, because of the role of gangs and the shop buyers of pseudoephedrine.

"If you make it a prescription item then of course people cannot go right around the country simply buying up those tablets from pharmacies."

Mr Goff said the prescription idea could be easier to implement than a ban.

Mr Key said he was surprised by the amount of methamphetamine - known as P - being made from locally obtained pseudoephedrine.

Gangs and drug syndicates often use "pill shoppers" to go from one pharmacy to the next, buying the pseudoephedrine-based tablets and turning them into P.

Mr Key said he understood pseudoephedrine was banned in some American states, and he wanted to know if that would work here.

He said New Zealanders wanted the Government to "show some leadership" on dealing with P.

More money would be provided for treating addicts - a problem area identified by the Herald's War on P series.

The Government would also address "border issues" that allowed the importing of the drug and its ingredients.

The pseudoephedrine ban Mr Key is considering would supersede the much-discussed option of a national computer register that would alert police to suspicious cold and flu tablet purchases.

Police support such a register, but no progress has been made despite almost 10 years of discussions.

Problems include privacy issues involved in requiring buyers to present ID, the cost of fitting all pharmacies with broadband internet connections and questions over its long-term effectiveness.

Professor Gluckman said Mr Key's query was "a good question that needs to be asked".

Some cold and flu tablets did not use pseudoephedrine, so the issue was their effectiveness compared to those that did.

Professor Gluckman, a medical researcher and one of New Zealand's best-known scientists, said he would address the issue as a matter of priority in July when taking up the newly created position advising Mr Key.

Methamphetamine consultant Mike Sabin said pseudoephedrine had been taken off shop shelves and made prescription-only in Oregon, which was now leading the United States in combating the drug.

"If you want to control meth, you've got to control pseudo - and getting rid of pseudo is the only way you can control it."

Mr Sabin said he totally endorsed Mr Key's proposal as it made no sense to stock pseudoephedrine when alternatives existed.

Pharmacy Guild chief executive Annabel Young said the alternatives to pseudoephedrine were not nearly as effective in dealing with cold symptoms.

She said much of the locally produced methamphetamine was made from Contac NT smuggled in from China and restricting access to over-the-counter pseudoephedrine products would not stop this.

But Gisborne pharmacist David Moore, who refuses to stock pseudoephedrine, gave the Herald a list of 11 tablets using alternative ingredients such as phenyleprine that he said were just as effective.

* A parent's worry

Prime Minister John Key worries about his own teenage children becoming involved with P. "It is a $1.5 billion problem, it is wrecking lives and it is wrecking families. It is something ... as a parent I can tell you, obviously you worry about your children."

Mr Key is father to Stephie, 16, and Max, 14. He held the weekly Cabinet meeting early yesterday so he could return to Auckland to celebrate Max's birthday.