US: Pfizer bans use of drugs in prison executions

Opponents of the death penalty outside California State Prison in 2004. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty
Opponents of the death penalty outside California State Prison in 2004. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty
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Pharmaceutical company Pfizer is to block the use of its drugs in lethal injections, which means all federally approved drug manufacturers whose medications could be used for executions in the US have now put them off limits.

“Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment,” the company said on its website.

The company’s announcement has limited immediate impact. Its action is an enhancement of a previous policy that follows Pfizer’s $15 billion purchase last year of Hospira Inc, based in Illinois. Hospira had previously prohibited the use of its drugs in capital punishment, as have several other drug manufacturers.

Pfizer shares closed unchanged on Friday at $33.19.

The development means the approximately 25 FDA-approved companies worldwide able to manufacture drugs that will be used in executions have now blocked their use, according to Reprieve, a New York-based human rights organisation that opposes the death penalty.

“Pfizer’s actions cement the pharmaceutical industry’s opposition to the misuse of medicines,” said Maya Foa, Reprieve director.

Pfizer’s announcement was unlikely to have much effect on executions, which have slowed in recent years as drug manufacturers’ prohibitions on the drugs took effect.

However, as recently as last year, records show that labels on drugs used for Arkansas executions appeared to indicate that the state’s potassium chloride, which stops the heart, was made by Hospira. Pfizer spokeswoman Rachel Hooper said the company couldn’t speculate on the impact of its decision.

Ohio, which last executed an inmate in January 2014, has pushed back executions while it looks for suitable drugs. It now has more than two dozen inmates with execution dates, but no drugs to put them to death with.

Some remaining death penalty states have been using compounded versions of drugs that fall outside FDA approval.

Texas, with the country’s busiest death chamber, obtains its pentobarbital for lethal injections from a supplier the state identifies only as a licensed compounding pharmacy. A law that took effect last year keeps the identity of the drug provider confidential. The state has carried out six executions so far in 2016. At least eight are scheduled for the coming months, including two in June.

Texas is fighting a lawsuit trying to force it to identify drug manufacturers from April 2014, when attorneys unsuccessfully filed appeals to stop two executions by seeking the identity of the drug providers, and September 2015, when the state’s secrecy law took effect.

Similar lawsuits about whether states must identify their providers have been argued in Georgia, Arkansas and Missouri.

There have been 14 executions in the US so far in 2016: six in Texas, five in Georgia and one each in Alabama, Florida and Missouri. Last year, there were 28 in six states.

Some states have passed laws allowing older methods if needed. Last year, Utah approved the use of firing squads if drugs are unavailable, while Oklahoma became the first state to approve nitrogen gas if lethal injection is not possible.

In 2014, Tennessee passed a law allowing the use of the electric chair if lethal drugs cannot be found. Virginia is debating a similar bill.

The drugs affected by Pfizer’s policy are pancuronium bromide, potassium chloride, 
propofol, midazolam, hydromorphone, rocuronium bromide and vecuronium bromide.