Lundbeck Urged to Do More to Stop Drug’s Use in U.S. Executions

Doctors who’ve prescribed medicines produced by H. Lundbeck A/S urged the Danish drugmaker to make more of an effort to stop the use of one of its treatments in executing U.S. prisoners facing the death penalty.

“We are appalled at the inaction of Lundbeck to prevent the supply of their drug, Nembutal,” doctors from the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Denmark, India and the U.S. said in the June 18 issue of Lancet. Nembutal, also known as pentobarbital, “is rapidly proving to be the drug of choice for U.S. executions,” five doctors, writing on behalf of another 58 physicians, wrote in the medical journal.

The drug, first approved in 1939, is used to treat seizures and euthanize animals. U.S. states, starting with Oklahoma in December, have begun administering the sedative to execute prisoners after facing a shortage of sodium thiopental. That drug’s manufacturer, Hospira Inc., stopped production after authorities in Italy, where manufacturing is located, asked for a guarantee it wouldn’t be used in executions. Italy doesn’t have the death penalty.

Writing in the Lancet, the doctors, led by David Nicholl, a U.K. neurologist, said Lundbeck should adopt measures similar to those it uses to control distribution of two other drugs, Sabril and Xenazine, for health reasons. Sabril is also used to treat seizures, while doctors prescribe Xenazine for patients with Huntington’s disease.

U.S. Prisons

Lundbeck, which has said it opposes the death penalty, sells 50 million doses of Nembutal a year in the U.S. It has hired advisers to draw up a plan by September to make it more difficult for U.S. prisons to buy Nembutal, the Copenhagen-based company said today.

Lundbeck may also take measures before September, spokesman Anders Schroll said. “There might be specific distribution controls that we could implement earlier,” he said by phone.

Lundbeck acquired Nembutal when it took over Deerfield, Illinois-based Ovation Pharmaceuticals Inc. in 2009.

Organizations opposing the death penalty, including Reprieve, have criticized the company for not doing more to stop the drug’s use in executions.

“If Lundbeck puts in tough controls, it would have very wide ramifications,” Maya Foa, an investigator with Reprieve, said by phone today.

To contact the reporter on this story: Frances Schwartzkopff in Copenhagen at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Angela Cullen at

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