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The Royal Pharmaceutical Society is piloting a new logo, designed to help people identify websites that sell safe, genuine medicine. The news follows reports that cancer patients are turning to the internet to obtain treatment, because the drugs they need are not available on the NHS.

The RPS's new logo will only apply to sites registered in the UK, and will only be awarded to sites run by registered pharmacists. Since copying a logo is no difficult task, the RPS's will maintain a list of reputable internet pharmacies which shoppers will be able to search to check up on a site's credentials.

However as the scheme is UK-only it will do little to stop patients visiting international pharmacies to buy drugs not yet available to them on the NHS. In the global environment of the web, this surely makes it of questionable value.

It will also do nothing to stem the flow of spam emails offering "cheap V14gra" to everyone who owns a computer.

The Observer reports that most often patients want to try treatments that have not yet been licensed for use in the UK, and often do so without the knowledge of their doctor. It quotes Karol Sikora, a leading cancer specialist in the UK, who was addressing a group of doctors and politician meeting to discuss the issue.

He explains that a number of his patients buy medicines at CanadaDrugs.com, one of Canada's largest online pharmacies. He said: "These patients are well informed, and they shop around for the cheapest prices,' he said. 'I had one patient, a very well educated young woman who wanted Tarceva for lung cancer. She couldn't get the drug on the NHS. The price from a Harley Street clinic worked out at around £75 a tablet - but ordering from Canada would bring it down to £35 a tablet."

He added that younger patients were particularly disinclined to wait for the government to OK a new treatment: "The idea that you can't get a cancer drug that will extend your life because a government body has decreed you can't have it just won't work," he said.

This is perhaps not surprising when such huge sums of money can be saved, or when people are facing a terminal illness and perceive no support from the ever-cash-strapped National Health Service. There must be a distinction drawn between people using reputable international sites to save money on medicines their doctors have prescribed, and will be supervising, and those who are self-prescribing unlicensed drugs, or obtaining them from dubious sources.

However, the RPS has fairly unequivocal advice for people considering such a service: Don't. A spokeswoman said: 'Sadly, we have no influence or say over what happens abroad. We can only warn people about the dangers." ®

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