Pfizer stops use of its drugs in executions

Move closes last open-market source of drugs for lethal injections as states look for options

WASHINGTON • Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that it had imposed sweeping controls on the distribution of its products to ensure that none is used in lethal injections, a step that shuts off the last remaining open-market source of drugs used in executions.

More than 20 United States and European drug companies have already adopted such restrictions, citing either moral or business reasons. Nonetheless, the decision from one of the world's leading pharmaceutical manufacturers is seen as a milestone.

Ms Maya Foa, who tracks drug companies for Reprieve, a human rights advocacy group, said: "With Pfizer's announcement, all FDA-approved manufacturers of any potential execution drug have now blocked their sale for this purpose."

FDA refers to the US Food and Drug Administration.

"Executing states must now go underground if they want to get hold of medicines for use in lethal injection," she added.

The obstacles to lethal injection have grown in the last five years as manufacturers, seeking to avoid association with executions, have barred the sale of their products to corrections agencies.

Experiments with new drugs, a series of botched executions and covert efforts to obtain lethal chemicals have mired many states in court challenges.

The mounting difficulty in obtaining lethal drugs has already caused states to furtively scramble for supplies. Some states have used third-party buyers or tried to import drugs from abroad that are not approved by the FDA, only to see them seized by federal agents.

Some have covertly bought supplies from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies while others, including Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio, have delayed executions for months or longer because of drug shortages or legal issues tied to injection procedures.

A few states have adopted the electric chair, firing squad or gas chamber as an alternative if lethal drugs are not available.

Lawyers for condemned inmates have challenged the efforts of corrections officials to conceal how the drugs are obtained, saying this makes it impossible to know if they meet quality standards or might cause undue suffering.

"States are shrouding in secrecy aspects of what should be the most transparent government activity," said Professor Ty Alper, associate director of the death penalty clinic at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

Campaigns against the death penalty and Europe's strong prohibitions on the export of execution drugs have raised the stakes for pharmaceutical companies.

But many, including Pfizer, say medical principles and business concerns have guided their policies. "Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve," the company said on Friday.

It also "strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline 'Pfizer stops use of its drugs in executions'. Subscribe