FILE - This May 27, 2008 file photo shows the State of Texas execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas. A leading association for pharmacists on Monday has approved a proposal declaring that participation in lethal injection executions by compounding pharmacies would be a violation of core pharmacy values. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File)
The Texas execution chamber in Huntsville. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

Pfizer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, said Friday that it was tightening restrictions on its drugs to ensure that they are not used in lethal injections, a move that further clamps down on the chemicals states can obtain for executions.

While Pfizer had previously said that it had restrictions in place to keep its drugs from being used in lethal injections, the company had acknowledged that it could not guarantee that no prison would obtain lethal injection drugs. This new policy adds in a system of monitoring to ensure that its drugs do not wind up sold to prisons for lethal injections.

This announcement comes as the dwindling number of states that still carry out lethal injections have scrambled to obtain drugs amid an ongoing shortage, which has forced some to adopt a series of new lethal injection protocols aimed at letting them carry out executions.

“These changes are significant,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “What Pfizer has done today is make clear that along with the rest of the pharmaceutical community, it’s committed to ensuring that its medicines are not misused.”

In recent years, companies have spoken out about the use of their drugs in lethal injections, prompting a flurry of activity in states that previously relied upon a three-drug formula. These shortages and court challenges have caused states to halt executions for months and, in Ohio’s case, years at a time.

Pfizer’s new policy, which was outlined Friday, added new restrictions that a company spokeswoman said “enhances” the previous system. The pharmaceutical giant also said it is setting up a system to monitor the drugs once they are sold to make sure purchasers continue to comply with Pfizer’s restrictions.

“Pfizer makes its products solely to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve,” Rachel Hooper, the spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We strongly object to the use of any of our products in the lethal injection process for capital punishment.”

The news about Pfizer’s decision was first reported Friday by the New York Times.

The company’s policy lists seven drugs that the company says are intended “to treat illness or save the lives of patients” but had also been included in lethal injection protocols adopted or proposed around the country. Pfizer says it will only sell these specific drugs to groups that will not resell them to prisons intending to use them in lethal injections, and the company asks government groups to certify that they are only getting the drugs for medical purposes. 

Pfizer’s previous policy, dated last fall, said that it was seeking to restrict “unintended uses” of its drugs, but it also said that due to the complexity of the supply chain, the company could not guarantee that prisons could not obtain the drugs.

Under the new policy, dated this spring and revealed Friday, the company added a formal statement of objection to its drugs being used in lethal injections and says that in addition to monitoring the distribution of these seven drugs, the company would “act upon findings that reveal noncompliance.”

Observers of capital punishment said the move appeared to be sizable, though they said that due to the secrecy that governs how states obtain lethal injection drugs, it was hard to know how much of an impact this change would have on states seeking to carry out executions in the near future.

“It is something we used to be able to know, but now it is increasingly different,”  said Megan McCracken, a lawyer with the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley’s law school. “So much secrecy surrounds how states get their drugs, how many hands it passes through. So many states have laws in place now that prevent or prohibit the disclosure of information about the source of the drugs, how they’re obtained, who made them.”

In Texas, which has carried out six of the 14 executions in the United States this year, the state uses one drug — pentobarbital — that is not manufactured by Pfizer. While Texas officials say it cannot identify the supplier due to state law, a corrections spokesman said last year that officials bought pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy.

Dunham said that while it is not clear if Pfizer’s drugs may have been used in lethal injections despite its objections, the company’s actions suggest they believe this has occurred and that’s why it “is taking steps to minimize the future risk.”

“Litigation over lethal injection secrecy has disclosed that some states appear to … [have] actually been able to obtain medicines produced by pharmaceutical companies despite their restrictions on distribution,” Dunham said. “And that has raised the question about whether the secrecy provisions are intended to protect the identity of the manufacturer or to conceal the identity of the supplier from the manufacturer.”

Corrections officials in some of the handful of states that still routinely carry out executions did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday. A spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections said the department did not disclose the identities of its drug suppliers for lethal injections, while a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment.

Court records and departments of correction have shown that states have traded drugs, while others have turned to compounding pharmacies to obtain drugs for lethal injections.

“It’s very significant that the pharmaceutical industry is speaking with a unified, singular voice,” McCracken said. “Saying we don’t want our products used this way and actually taking steps to ensure that they aren’t.”

Maya Foa, director of the death-penalty team for Reprieve, a human-rights group, also said Pfizer’s move was important.

“What they’ve done is really tighten up the controls,” Foa said in an interview. “They’ve worked very hard to make sure these are very strong controls, and Pfizer … they have the capacity to keep very, very tight controls on this.”

The number of executions has declined nationwide as states like Florida, Oklahoma and Ohio, routinely among the most active when it comes to capital punishment, have gone months at a time without an execution amid legal challenges and investigations.

Oklahoma’s executions are on hold after state officials learned they used the wrong drug in an execution last year, while executions in Florida have still not resumed after the state’s death penalty law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and rewritten. The Florida Supreme Court is weighing whether to take action that could overturn nearly 400 death sentences in the state due to the high court’s ruling.

Further reading:

The U.S. saw fewer executions and death sentences in 2015 than it has in decades

Most Americans support the death penalty. They also agree innocent people can be executed.

Virginia wants to shield the identity of makers of lethal-injection drugs