The New York Times
Drug Company in Cross Hairs of Death Penalty Opponents
By RAYMOND BONNER
March 30, 2011
LONDON — Virtually all European countries ban capital punishment, and the European Union has been a leader in the effort to ban it worldwide. But that has not stopped European companies from contributing to the active death penalty machine in the United States through the supply of drugs used in lethal injections.
A Danish pharmaceutical company, Lundbeck, has become the latest to supply a drug to U.S. death penalty states — Ohio used it to put a man to death two weeks ago, and Texas is planning to use it in an execution scheduled for April 5.
That has put the medium-size company in the cross hairs of death penalty opponents. In the last six months, these forces have succeeded in stopping Italian and British companies from exporting lethal injection drugs to the United States.
A Lundbeck spokesman said the company was shocked when it learned recently that its drug, pentobarbital, was being used in executions. “This is fully against what we stand for,” the spokesman, Anders Schroll, said by telephone. “We are in the business of improving people’s lives.” He said that the drug had legitimate uses in controlling epilepsy and that the company had no control over how the drugs were used once the company sold them to its distributors in the United States.
Reprieve, a human rights organization in Britain, has led the campaign to stop European companies from selling lethal injection drugs to the United States. It called Lundbeck’s position “extremely disappointing.”
Lethal injection has been adopted by all the U.S. states that have the death penalty, although some also permit other methods.
The general procedure in most states is for the condemned to be strapped onto a gurney and wheeled into the execution chamber. The condemned person’s arms are swabbed with alcohol, and two intravenous tubes are inserted, one in each arm.
From another room, the executioners first release sodium thiopental, a general anesthesia, into the tubes. (In surgery, 100 to 150 milligrams are used; for executions, as much as 5,000 milligrams.) This is followed by a muscle relaxant, which paralyzes the diaphragm and lungs. Finally, potassium chloride may be injected, causing death by cardiac arrest.
The use of foreign-supplied sodium thiopental, and the surrounding controversy, has arisen because the U.S. company that manufactured thiopental, Hospira, ceased production at its plant in North Carolina.
Initially, Hospira was going to import the drug from its plant in Milan, but under pressure from death penalty opponents, the Italian government demanded that Hospira guarantee the drug would not be used in executions. Hospira said it could not make that guarantee.
Death penalty states found a British supplier, Dream Pharma, a small wholesaler that operated out of the back room of a driving school in West London. Demonstrating that this is a lucrative business, the company swiftly raised prices for the drug, which it sold to six states. The British drug has been used in three executions.
Dream Pharma’s managing director, Matt Alavi, declined to answer any questions when reached by telephone. “I have no comment, have a nice day,” he said.
Reprieve filed a lawsuit to ban the exportation of thiopental for use in executions. The British government responded that the death penalty states would simply buy it elsewhere. But shortly after, the government effectively prohibited the export as Reprieve had requested.
Pharmaceutical companies in Austria and Germany also make the drug, but the governments of both countries have recently warned companies not to sell their drugs for executions in the United States, according to a spokeswoman for Reprieve, Katherine O’Shea.
Austria has pledged to work with other European countries to prohibit the export of all drugs to the United States for use in executions, a senior Austrian official wrote in a letter to Bianca Jagger, who met him in Vienna on behalf of Reprieve. Such a ban would be consistent with E.U. bans on “certain goods which could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” said the official, Helmut Tichy.
He said that the government had appealed publicly to Sandoz, which makes thiopental, not to sell it for use by executioners in the United States, and that the company had agreed not to do so.
Now that obtaining sodium thiopental is becoming more difficult, death penalty states are switching to pentobarbital, the drug manufactured by Lundbeck. Some states plan to use it as an anesthetic in lieu of sodium thiopental. In other states, it will be used alone, as an alternative to the three-drug cocktail.
Lundbeck’s pentobarbital has been sold to Ohio, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas, said Mr. Schroll, the company spokesman.
Earlier this month, representatives from Reprieve and a prominent U.S. death penalty lawyer, Joseph Margulies, met with Lundbeck officials. They asked the company to put a provision into their contracts with their U.S. distributors that the drug could not be resold to any state for execution purposes. Mr. Schroll said the distributors would not sign such restrictive contracts.
Sales of pentobarbital in the United States account for less than 1 percent of the company’s total revenues, Mr. Scholl said. Given that, Mr. Margulies countered: “They should not allow their modest profit from the drug to make them complicit in capital punishment.”
Mr. Schroll said that the company was in a very uncomfortable situation. Most of Lundbeck’s employees are against the death penalty, he said. Denmark itself has not had a civilian execution since 1882.
Exclusive: Danes won't block execution drug
COPENHAGEN, Denmark _ A Danish company that unwittingly has become a key supplier of an execution drug in the U.S. says it's not going to withdraw or restrict it, even though it objects to the chemical being «misused» for capital punishment.
Lundbeck A/S is doing «all we can» to dissuade U.S.
states from using pentobarbital for lethal injections, but won't pull it from the U.S. market, CEO Ulf Wiinberg told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Pentobarbital is a sedative with a range of medical uses, including treatment of epileptic seizures. It also is used to euthanize animals.
«Financially speaking this is not an important product for us and we thought about whether we should withdraw it and the reaction we got from doctors was that they didn't want us to withdraw the product,» Wiinberg said at the drug maker's annual shareholders meeting in Copenhagen.
As the only company making the drug, Lundbeck found itself in an awkward position as death penalty states started switching to pentobarbital for lethal injections to replace another chemical that's no longer readily available.
Pentobarbital has already been used to execute prisoners in Ohio and Oklahoma. The first execution in Texas using pentobarbital is scheduled for next week. Mississippi and Arizona are also considering switching to pentobarbital for lethal injections.
«One of our products is being misused,» Wiinberg said.
«When we heard about this, we went out and took a very clear position, saying we are against the misuse of our product and that we, as an organization, made it clear that we are against death penalty.»
Lundbeck A/S has written letters to prison authorities in U.S. states asking them not to use pentobarbital for lethal injections, but to no avail so far.
The company is now coming under pressure from human rights groups opposed to the death penalty to take stronger action, such as rewriting distribution contracts with clauses prohibiting sales of pentobarbital to U.S. prisons.
Lundbeck rejected that idea, saying it would be impossible for distributors to follow up on how every vial is used.
Lundbeck says it sells about 50 million doses of pentobarbital a year.
«We don't believe it will work and we will not do it,» Wiinberg told the AP.
London-based human rights group Reprieve called the decision «disappointing and cowardly.»
«We had hoped for a more courageous response, but apparently Lundbeck would rather preserve their U.S.
commercial interests than prisoners' lives,» Reprieve investigator Maya Foa said in an email to the AP.
The sudden demand for pentobarbital comes amid a shortage of sodium thiopental, another sedative that is part of the three-drug lethal injection cocktail used by nearly all 34 states that implement death penalty.
The manufacturer of that drug, Hospira Inc., said in January it would cease production, sending states scrambling for ways to fill their inventories to keep their executions on track. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration this month seized Georgia's supply of sodium thiopental over questions about how it imported the drug from Britain.
Hospira quit production when lawmakers in Italy, home of the company's new factory, demanded assurances that the substance would not be used in executions.
Authorities in Denmark, which also opposes the death penalty, are not expected to intervene against Lundbeck, because the plant where it makes pentobarbital is in Kansas. So death penalty opponents are hoping Lundbeck's shareholders will apply pressure on management to take action, though there was little discussion about the issue Wednesday at Lundbeck's steel-and-glass headquarters in the
«It is of course an unpleasant case but Lundbeck has not done anything wrong,» said Niels Aage Larsen, who represents a Danish shareholders association with 5,000 members. «Like a producer of knives, they cannot know how and where their products are being used.»
Among Lundbeck's institutional investors are Scandinavian pension funds, including oil-rich Norway's Government Pension Fund Global, which at the end of 2010 held a 0.68 percent stake in Lundbeck worth 150 million Norwegian kroner (about $25 million).
The fund has strict ethical guidelines banning investments in tobacco companies and some weapons firms. The guidelines don't specifically address companies associated with capital punishment, but «it can't be excluded» that such companies would come under scrutiny, said Gro Nystuen, who
chairs the fund's ethical council.
She wouldn't say whether the council is reviewing the fund's stake in Lundbeck because such deliberations are confidential until a decision is made.
«We are well aware of the case and the company,» she added.