Pharma Under Pressure to Restrict Execution Drugs

Pharma Under Pressure to Restrict Execution Drugs

May 22nd, 2012 // 1:27 pm @

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The ongoing scramble by some states for lethal injection drugs has prompted a new campaign by activists to pressure drugmakers not to make their medications available. The undertaking is called the Pharmaceutical Hippocratic Oath, which drugmakers are being asked to sign and pledge that their medicines will be used to ‘help, not harm.’ So far, Lundbeck has agreed to participate and an effort is getting under way this week to prompt others to do the same.

“Many drugmakers are unaware that prisons are using their products to kill. Some prisons go to great lengths to procure drugs for lethal injection with no concern for the interests or reputation of manufacturers,” Maya Foa, an investigator with Reprieve, a UK Charity that is organizing the campaign, tells us. “The pharmaceutical industry should be united in its opposition to the abuse” of its drugs.

Among drugmakers high on the list to convince is Hospira. Earlier this year, more than two dozen prominent physicians from different countries published a letter in The Lancet to Hospira ceo Michael Ball, urging him to restrict the use of Pancuronium, which is one of three drugs that are used in a lethal injection cocktail administered by many states in the US that still employ the death penalty (read here).

In a response in the same issue of the medical journal, Ball wrote that Hospira does not support the use of its drug for lethal injections and maintains the drugmaker has written to various states to underscore that point. As to taking any specific steps, though, he was vague, because Hospira is concerned that restricted distribution may jeopardize legitimate patients.

We asked Hospira if the drugmaker would sign the oath. A spokesperson told us this: “We really can’t comment on the Oath right now, but we’ve always said we don’t support the use of any of our products for lethal injections. It’s completely counter to our company vision of advancing wellness and, over the years, Hospira has regularly written to every state to make clear that we oppose the use of drugs for executions.”

Besides Lundbeck, several other European drugmakers have opposed the use of the meds for executions in the US. Earlier this month, for instance, Naari issued a voluntary recall of a lethal injection drug held by Nebraska, and asked state officials to quarantine and return a supply of sodium thiopental. The Swiss drugmaker claimed a batch was an illegally diverted sample meant for testing and issued the recall as a precautionary measure. However, the state refused, mainitaining the drug was obtained properly (see this and this).

Sodium thiopental, by the way, figured prominently in a recent ruling in which a federal judge chastised the FDA for failing to prevent states from importing the medication for lethal injections. Agency officials had defended their position by arguing the drug was released to several states an act of “enforcement discretion” and indicated the agency “deferred to law enforcement in the use of substances for lethal injection” (read this).

The FDA, though, was ordered to notify state corrections departments that the use of sodium thiopental was prohibited and had to be returned (see this). Yesterday, 15 state attorneys general wrote a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder, urging the Justice Department to appeal the FDA move to restrict the use of the drug because this “undermines the ability of states to properly enforce capital punishment laws.” The ruling last March by US District Court Judge Richard Leon, they wrote, was “flawed.”

“At the very core of the states’ police powers are their powers to enact laws to protect their citizens against violent crimes. As state attorneys general, we are tasked with enforcing those laws, including in instances where capital punishment is authorized for the most heinous of crimes,” the letter states.

“Implicit in that obligation to our citizens is the need for the means by which to carry out executions. Given that the US itself utilizes lethal injection as a means of executing federal death row inmates, surely you understand the unfortunate position we have been put in by the FDA’s decision to treat the Beaty decision as a nationally binding precedent


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