A Danish producer of pentobarbital, an animal euthanasia drug that prisons in the United States have recently started using in lethal injections, has said it would henceforth stop its product from reaching executioners.

Lundbeck, which came under enormous pressure from campaign groups and investors last year after a slew of U.S. correctional facilities switched to its barbiturate, said on Friday, “Going forward, Nembutal [the commercial name for pentobarbital] will be supplied exclusively through a specialty pharmacy drop ship program that will deny distribution of the product to prisons in U.S. states currently active in carrying out the death penalty by lethal injection.”

The company added that it had notified its distributors of the plan in late June and under its new distribution programme hospitals and treatment centres would continue to have access to Nembutal for therapeutic purposes but it would “review all Nembutal orders before providing clearance for shipping the product and deny orders from prisons located in States currently active in carrying out death penalty sentences.”

This development is a serious setback to U.S. correctional facilities, many of which switched to the pentobarbital after the drug earlier used became scarce in the country. The supply of that drug, sodium thiopental, dried up after the sole company producing it, Hospira, announced last year that it would halt production owing to raw materials concerns.

This week Maya Foa of a United Kingdom-based anti-death-penalty campaign group Reprieve however welcomed the steps taken by Lundbeck, which she said showed that it was possible to take action to stop the supply of drugs for use in executions. “Other pharmaceutical companies should now follow Lundbeck’s example... We also need to see action from the European Commission to block the export of execution drugs from the EU to the U.S.,” she said.

The action by Lundbeck followed from Reprieve and other groups pressing the company to commit to a concrete strategy to prevent U.S. prisons from diverting their product from legitimate medical use toward executions.

Spelling out some of the details on the proposed distribution changes, Lundbeck said that prior to receiving Nembutal, it would require the purchaser to sign a form stating that the purchase of Nembutal was for its own use and that it would not redistribute any purchased product without express written authorisation from Lundbeck. “By signing the form, the purchaser agrees that the product will not be made available for use in capital punishment,” the company said.

"Lundbeck adamantly opposes the distressing misuse of our product in capital punishment... While the company has never sold the product directly to prisons and therefore cannot make guarantees, we are confident that our new distribution program will play a substantial role in restricting prisons' access to Nembutal for misuse as part of lethal injection,” said Ulf Wiinberg, Chief Executive Officer of Lundbeck, in a statement.

However the company reiterated that its pentobarbital met “important medical need” and it had chosen not to withdraw the product from the market because “the product continues to meet an important medical need in the U.S. Nembutal is used to treat serious conditions such as a severe and life threatening emergency epilepsy.”

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