Background Inexpensive antihypertensive drugs are at least as effective and safe as more expensive drugs. Overuse of newer, more expensive antihypertensive drugs is a poor use of resources. The potential savings are substantial, but vary across countries, in large part due to differences in prescribing patterns. We wanted to describe prescribing patterns of antihypertensive drugs in ten countries and explore possible reasons for inter-country variation. Methods National prescribing profiles were determined based on information on sales and indications for prescribing. We sent a questionnaire to academics and drug regulatory agencies in Canada, France, Germany, UK, US and the Nordic countries, asking about explanations for differences in prescribing patterns in their country compared with the other countries. We also conducted telephone interviews with medical directors of drug companies in the UK and Norway, the countries with the largest differences in prescribing patterns. Results There is considerable variation in prescribing patterns. In the UK thiazides account for 25% of consumption, while the corresponding figure for Norway is 6%. In Norway alpha-blocking agents account for 8% of consumption, which is more than twice the percentage found in any of the other countries. Suggested factors to explain inter-country variation included reimbursement policies, traditions, opinion leaders with conflicts of interests, domestic pharmaceutical production, and clinical practice guidelines. The medical directors also suggested hypotheses that: Norwegian physicians are early adopters of new interventions while the British are more conservative; there are many clinical trials conducted in Norway involving many general practitioners; there is higher cost-awareness among physicians in the UK, in part due to fund holding; and there are publicly funded pharmaceutical advisors in the UK. Conclusion Two compelling explanations the variation in prescribing that warrant further investigation are the promotion of less-expensive drugs by pharmaceutical advisors in UK and the promotion of more expensive drugs through "seeding trials" in Norway.