Hospira Decision to Drop Death-Penalty Drug May Disrupt Executions in U.S.

Hospira Inc. said it will no longer produce sodium thiopental, a drug used in death penalty cases, potentially delaying executions in the U.S.

The Lake Forest, Illinois-based company said in a statement it would discontinue manufacturing the anesthetic after Italian government authorities asked for a guarantee that the drug, slated to be produced for the first time at a plant in Italy this year, wouldn’t be used in executions. Hospira said it can’t control the ultimate end use of the medicine, marketed as Pentothal.

Hospira is the lone U.S. producer of the drug used worldwide to sedate patients undergoing medical procedures, said Dan Rosenberg, a Hospira spokesman. It is included as part of a cocktail of drugs used by correctional institutions in the U.S. as a fast-acting sedative in lethal-injection executions.

“This drug is intended for medical use and we would never condone the use of the drug for lethal injections,” Rosenberg said yesterday in a telephone interview. “Even if we and our suppliers didn’t sell to departments of corrections, there was no way we could guarantee that the drug might not be diverted for that use.”

The disruption in production of sodium thiopental may delay the states’ ability to carry out death sentences because the use of Hospira’s drug in some states is specified in legislation authorizing lethal injections, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

Delays in Executions

“We’ve already seen delays in executions and setting dates for executions when Hospira stopped production,” Dieter said yesterday in a telephone interview. “There are manufacturers outside of the U.S., but the U.K. for instance has taken steps to prevent the exportation of the drug for use in executions. And some producers may raise questions of reliability of expiration dates.”

Oklahoma has found a substitute for the drug, an anesthetic used in animal euthanasia, because its laws didn’t specify sodium thiopental, Dieter said.

“As long as the death penalty is constitutional, the courts will eventually approve some alternative,” Dieter said.

The Italian government had threatened to prevent Hospira from exporting the drug if there was evidence it was being used in executions, Rosenberg said. The company was scheduled to begin production in Italy in the first quarter of this year, he said. Hospira halted production in 2009 following manufacturing issues.

Rosenberg said the company can’t move the production to another location at this time because “there is no other viable facility.” The company had manufactured the drug in North Carolina in the past.

Hospira shares fell 41 cents to $55.24 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The company’s shares increased 7.8 percent over the past 12 months.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Wechsler in New York at pwechsler@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.

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