AP Exclusive: Danes won't block execution drug

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Posted: Mar 30, 2011 12:14 PM
AP Exclusive: Danes won't block execution drug

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 Danish capital.

"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.

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Ritter reported from Stockholm.