Docs demand Hospira action on execution drug

An international group of doctors is putting the squeeze on Hospira ($HSP) over a drug now being used for executions by U.S. death-penalty states. Writing in The Lancet, 25 physicians said Hospira should follow the example of Denmark's Lundbeck, which restricted distribution of its anesthetic pentobarbital to keep it out of executioners' hands.

The doctors' letter is the latest salvo in a fight over drugs used for lethal injections. It's a tale of drug shortages, manufacturing snafus--and even back-door purchasing by state prisons. Governments in Europe have moved to restrict distribution of the drugs, and EU officials recently tightened up rules for their export. One big problem, however, is these drugs have therapeutic uses, and so the restrictions are difficult to institute and enforce.

The Hospira drug in question is pancuronium, a muscle relaxant. And it's not only opposition to the death penalty that motivated these doctors. They say the drug may cause extreme pain when used in executions--suffering that's not obvious because the prisoner has already been chemically paralyzed.

This is the second time Hospira has run into execution-related controversy. It stopped making thiopental last year after manufacturing problems in the U.S. prompted a production move to Italy--and the Italian government demanded guarantees the drug wouldn't be used in executions.

Now, Hospira says it has written to U.S. states to oppose their use of the company's drugs in executions, but restricting pancuronium distribution could interfere with therapeutic use of the drug. "We continue to explore options around optimizing distribution of all of our products," CEO Michael Ball responded in The Lancet.

- see The Lancet letter
- read the Reuters news