On May 13, Pfizer stated that it will act to halt its drugs from being used in lethal injections. The American pharmaceutical company will commence the blocking of certain drugs, including the powerful anaesthetic propofol, that led to the death of the King of Pop Michael Jackson. The other products that Pfizer intends to block are vecuronium bromide, rocuronium bromide, hydromorphone, and potassium chloride.

This comes on the back of mounting pressure from human rights groups, drug producers, as well as trustees of the New York State pension fund, a key shareholder in Pfizer. Less than 10 years ago, lethal injections were generally seen as a simple, humane method of killing condemned prisoners.

In almost all executions, the same three-drug combination of sodium thiopental, a paralytic and a heart-stopping drug are used. However, in 2009, the sole factory that received federal approval for the making of sodium thiopental shuttered due to technical problems. Ever since then, along with other stringent export measures within the EU, state correction agencies were thrown into confusion.

In 2014, the sedative midazolam caused the prolonged execution of double murderer Joseph R Wood III in Arizona. The decision by Pfizer reflects its stance on the use of its products as lethal injections in executions. In turn, the sale of the products is restricted to a selected group of direct purchasers, distributors and wholesalers provided that they do not resell these products to correction centres for use in lethal injections.

Such a condition is imposed to let manufacturers be unaware of misuse of their drugs, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of Washington’s research group the Death Penalty Information Center. In the event that lethal drugs become unavailable, some states have resorted to the gas chamber, firing squad or electric chair as an option in carrying out the death penalty.

In 2015, Utah State Representative Paul Ray fought for the authorization of the firing squad.  Other states illegally import unapproved drugs from overseas. As a result, states like Utah and Ohio have been embroiled in legal battles. The notable decision by Pfizer comes after over 20 European and US-based drugmakers had imposed such restrictions. Along with European enforcement on the export of execution drugs, campaigns against capital punishment have raised the stakes for pharmaceutical giants.

– Yong Jo Leen, Correspondent (Business)