The Norwegian nightmare

The UN usually rates Scandinavia as the best place in the world to live, but do we deserve the reputation we have?

I guess Norway is neither worse or better than other countries, but there are things I’d like to change about the society I live in. One of the things I don’t like is how proud we are of ourselves as a nation. We think we are the most likeable and tolerant people on the planet, and although you won’t see my government being blatantly dishonest, you are more likely to find evidence of that in a society where no one keeps the authorities honest.

The Norwegian government has an oil fund or The Government Pension Fund of Norway, as it is oficially called. This is going to secure financial stability when the oil is gone, or during a recession. The current value is about $ 900 billion. The fund made some controversial investments (tobacco, arms and fossil fuel) a few years ago that made the government introduce The Ethical Council. The investments are supposed to be better today, but is that really true?

The fund has invested more than 60 percent of its money in stocks and the five biggest investments at the moment are Nestle, Novartis, Roche Holding, Alphabet and Microsoft. The government was even offerered to invest in Facebook some years ago, but had to turn them down because that was before Facebook was on the stock exchange, which is one of the limitations in the oil fund.

Nestle is the world’s largest producer of bottled water. You’d think they were proud to talk about their success, but they are not willing to talk about how they have acquired this water. The Swiss journalist Res Gehrig experienced that when he was working on the documentary film Bottled Life. There were many questions he wanted to ask them.

One of them was about a water project they developed together with the UN in Ethiopia. This provided water for 35 000 Somali refugees, but the supply was very unreliable. That was because this groundwater contained a lot of iron, which broke down the equipment, and it took several days to fix it. The former UN adviser on water, Maude Barlow, said in the documentary that Nestle is only interested in profit and to improve their image. When they see that they don’t have any benefits they pull out of a project, which seems to be a general trend with big companies.

Nestle has a very aggressive strategy. They have had several conflicts with the local population in small American towns, and in some of them they have succeeded in taking over the local water rights. There was one place where activists managed to stop them, but that was after Nestle had tapped the groundwater in a nature preserve for several years  before the court decided the water was a part of nature, which gave the locals the right to use it. This is an idea that Nestle is activley fighting all over the world. The documentary also showed the Pakistani city Lahore where many people didn’t have access to clean water. There was still water, but the small, private wells didn’t reach deep enough because Nestle had tapped too much water. It didn’t matter to them because they could get deep enough to get the water that wsas still there.

Roche Holding
A holding company doesn’t produce anything, but is a parent company that manage the return in the companies it holds shares in. So when The Pension Fund says it owns shares in Roche Holding  it mainly means Hoffmann-La Roche. This is a Swiss pharmaceutical company that also owns a lot of other companies, among them the US biotechnology company Gentech, Ventana Medical System and the Japanese Chugai Pharmaceuticals.

There have been several controversies.The University of California at San Fransisco sued Genentech for $ 400 million in 1990. The university alleged that the company had used technology developed at the univsersity in a medicine used to treat dwarfism. The two parties clearly didn’t agree, but they agreed on a $ 200 million settlement. In a different case Hoffmann-La Roche pleaded guilty to price fixing of vitamins in 1999 and paid $ 500 million.

Tamiflu is the most relevant product Hofmann-La Roche sells. There is research that raises doubts about how effective this medicine is at treating influenza. A report by the non-commercial organization Cochrane Collaboration suggests that Tamiflu is an unnecessary treatment, but The Norwegian Medicines Agency still insists that Tamiflu is both useful and important. We have to realize that we are facing the same challenge with anti-viralia as with antibiotics. Virus can also develop a resistance when we overuse the medicine.

Norwegian authorities are not at all interested in criticizing a product they have invested in.
Norwegian authorities are not at all interested in criticizing a product they have invested in. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Novartis is another Swiss phasrmaceutical company that has experienced a number of controversies. When India joined the World Trade Organizatin the country had to accept international agreement related to patents. It had previously not been possible to patent products in India. Novartis tried to take advantage of the transition by trying to patent a medicine they had modified, but Supreme Court ruled that Novartis had failed to document that this minor modification had given the “new” medicine a different therapeutic effect. Novartis lost the case, but if they had won the other companies would have had to pay royalties for a medicine they had been allowed sell previously. Novartis still got so-called exclusive marketing rights. This is a right given to companies that haven’t developed the product, but it’s pretty close to the same thing. The other companies sold this product for between $ 177 and $ 266 a month, while Novartis’s new price was $ 2 666.

The company has come under scrutiny seceral times in the USA because they have exaggerated the effect of a drug, and for corruption. Two Japanese universities withdrew several clinical studies in 2013 showing that Valsartan (product name Diovan) had a cardiovascular effect. This medicine is used to treat high blood pressure in children and adolescents, heart failure in adults and adults that have had a heart attack. The studies were withdrawn because a Novartis employee had taken part in the statistical analysis, which had been manipulated.

This is hardly surprising because even though many seem to think that big pharma is the most reliable industry we have, there are many scandals. There are many studies we never hear about, because if they don’t show the desired result, they are not published. That gives us some frightening prospects because doctors don’t really know whether or not they can recommend a specific medicine over another one. This alone should make a government think twice before investing in big pharma. In the case of Tamifly, do you think the government would say that they have invested in a medicine that has limited effect? The government is also an ardent defender of vaccines, but how much credibility do they have when they profit from it?

There are similar issues related to compaies like Apple, Alphabet (holding company for Google),  and Microsoft, which together with the other companies I have mentioned in this post are the biggest investments in the Norwegian Pension Fund (aka the oil fund) at the moment. We know what happens when companies grow large and dominant. It doesn’t exactly encourage competition, democracy and civil rights. Governments should limit their powers, not encourage them.

We are going to have major expenses in the future. The environment could become the biggest loser because the politicians may feel that they can’t leave the oil and natural gas in Northern Norway where it is. They haven’t allowed drilling north of the Arctic Circle because of the serious consequences an oil leak would have to the environment, but I think greed will eventually take priority. Multi-national companies tend to want to break people’s lives. When the government is more focused on profitting from these companies, it is not likely to be concerned with ethics. I think there are two versions of the story about Norwegians. We like the one where we are the heroes, the peace mediators, the NATO-soldiers assuming responsibility, the environmentalists buying rainforest and reducing greenhouse emissions (which we clearly don’t), and we are generally very sympathetic. We might be seeing another version emerging now. The Norwegian Oil Fund was founded in 1990 and politicians talk about it as a success, an adventure, but in reality we are financing many people’s nightmare.

Bottled life
Hoiffmann-La Roche
Novartis

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