Funds would be better spent on treating patients and targeting the most at-risk groups rather than running high-profile advertising pushes, they say. The Royal College of Nursing is to debate the issue at its annual conference next week.

The Department of Health has spent millions on advertising campaigns over the past five years to encourage people to stop smoking, eat more fruit and vegetables and practise safer sex.

But a resolution tabled by the health visitors and public health forum of the RCN, entitled "Getting it wrong?", suggested the money had been wasted.

The resolution calls on the conference to discuss "whether resources allocated to some healthcare promotion campaigns could be better used in providing direct care to patients".

The Government spent £50m on a recent poster campaign about HIV and Aids, but, according to the RCN resolution, has "demonstrated limited evidence of success".

Despite the high profile of the campaign, UK cases of HIV rose by 50 per cent between 2000 and 2004 and the number of new diagnoses among heterosexuals now outstrips homosexual transmissions.

Cases of sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and herpes have also continued to rise, particularly among young people.

More than £30m will be spent this year alone on providing free fruit in schools, in addition to £700,000 in 2003 on a campaign encouraging people to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Despite this, consumption of healthy food has not increased dramatically, with only 18 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women in the most deprived areas of the UK eating the required five a day.

The NHS smoking cessation service has a budget this year of £51m and has spent millions on hard-hitting attempts to hit its target of reducing smoking rates to under 21 per cent by 2010.

Yet between 1998 and 2004, the proportion of adults who smoke fell by just three per cent to 25 per cent and rates among younger age-groups, considered to be more susceptible to advertising, have risen.

Nurses are to debate whether expensive promotional campaigns should be scrapped in favour of passing the financial cost on to companies responsible for specific health problems, such as food manufacturers, to inform consumers.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, said: "We have consistently criticised the Government on their limited campaigns at target audiences.

"The key to our successful HIV awareness campaign in the 1980s was that it had a significant impact on the public at large. It powerfully raised awareness on a national scale but Labour has failed to deliver any such sea change."

The Department of Health was not available for comment.