A friend sent me a press release a few days ago and I still find myself thinking about it. Here in the United States capital punishment is still legal in many states and is performed, frequently, by lethal injection. Prisoners sentenced to death have an IV placed in their arm which is then infused with the following three solutions:
- A barbiturate like Sodium Pentothal or Nembutal, used to induce anesthesia
- A paralytic like pancuronium bromide or succinylcholine chloride, used to stop respiration
- Potassium chloride used to stop electrical conduction in the heart
I remember a few years ago drug manufacturer Hospira, the producer of Sodium Pentothal, issued a statement that it disapproved of its drug being used in capital punishment. But, that was as far as their opposition went and, although Sodium Pentothal is in short supply, they have not to my knowledge formally discontinued supplying Sodium Pentothal to doctors who might use the drug in lethal injection. In 2010, the supply of Sodium Pentothal became limited and several states made the switch to Nembutal.
In response, Lundbeck, the producer of Nembutal, has issued a statement saying that they will no longer provide Nembutal to prisons in states where lethal injection is legal. In this press release Lundbeck announces its new distribution system, saying:
The new distribution program ensures that hospitals and treatment centers
will continue to have access to Nembutal for therapeutic purposes. Under the
program, Lundbeck will review all Nembutal orders before providing clearance for
shipping the product and deny orders from prisons located in states currently
active in carrying out death penalty sentences.
Prior to receiving Nembutal, the purchaser must sign a form stating that the
purchase of Nembutal is for its own use and that it will not redistribute any
purchased product without express written authorization from Lundbeck. By
signing the form, the purchaser agrees that the product will not be made
available for use in capital punishment.
“Lundbeck adamantly opposes the distressing misuse of our product in capital
punishment. Since learning about the misuse we have vetted a broad range of
remedies – many suggested during ongoing dialogue with external experts,
government officials, and human rights advocates. After much consideration, we
have determined that a restricted distribution system is the most meaningful
means through which we can restrict the misuse of Nembutal,” says Ulf Wiinberg,
Chief Executive Officer of H. Lundbeck A/S and continues: “While the company has
never sold the product directly to prisons and therefore can’t make guarantees,
we are confident that our new distribution program will play a substantial role
in restricting prisons’ access to Nembutal for misuse as part of lethal
I don’t think I have ever seen a drug manufacturer do something like this in response to a country’s policies. More interestingly, Lundbeck apparently considered removing Nembutal from the market all together to prevent its use in capital punishment:
Nembutal represents less than one percent of Lundbeck’s global sales but the
company chose not to withdraw the product from the market because the product
continues to meet an important medical need in the U.S. Nembutal is used to
treat serious conditions such as a severe and life threatening emergency
In a recent survey of more than 200 U.S. physicians and pharmacists conducted
by independent third-party research companies, 90 percent of the respondents
stated that options for treating patients requiring emergency control of certain
acute convulsive episodes would be compromised if Nembutal were no longer
available for use. Furthermore, 95 percent of respondents reported that it is
very important for their institution to have access to Nembutal for potential
use in the medical care of patients. All survey respondents were from academic
institutions, large community hospitals or epilepsy centers in the U.S.
This makes me wonder about the future of Nembutal in places with the death penalty. Many US prisons have hospital facilities with in staff doctors and nursing staff. Will prisoners in prisons in states that still have the death penalty continue to have access to Nembutal as a therapeutic option? Or, has Lundbeck made plans to stop supply for these purposes out of fear that prisons will re-purpose the drug for executions?
*This blog post was originally published at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess*