Hospira Inc., the US drug manufacturer producing sodium theopental - one component of the combination used in lethal injections - has decided to cease its production entirely, putting a question mark over the future of the death penalty in states that still allow it. The drug has been in short supply for a year now due to problems in manufacturing.

Illinois-based Hospira was supposed to have shifted its manufacturing facility to Italy, but the country's parliament has laid a condition which requires guarantee that the drug will not be used in administering the death penalty. However, since the company has largely relied on wholesalers for distribution, it is unable and unwilling to give an assurance to that effect. Italy itself abolished capital punishment as early as the 1940s and has been leading a global campaign to put an end to the form in all parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the 35 US states which are yet to abolish capital punishment have already started looking for alternative sources of sodium thiopental, in some cases even trying to obtain it overseas, say reports. In 2010, which saw 46 executions in all, shortage of the drug had delayed punishments in states such as California and Oklahoma.

Late in 2010, a district court had approved the use of pentobarbital, a drug used to euthanize animals, to stop executions from being further postponed in Oklahoma. States like Texas are also looking for replacement drugs, though use of any substitute requires court clearance and other extensive formalities to be completed. A representative of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice told Reuters that while the state has four scheduled executions in 2010, its current stock of the drug will only allow the first two slated for February.

Another serious implication is that discontinuation of production would inconvenience many hospital authorities and professionals using it for genuine medical purposes. Sodium thiopental has also been traditionally used as an anesthetic and sedative.

Bloomberg reported a fall in Hospira shares in New York Stock Exchange composite trading following the announcement.