State and Market in Nordic Consumer Policy


Eivind Sto, National Institute for Consumer Research (1995) ,"State and Market in Nordic Consumer Policy", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 283-288.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 283-288


Eivind Sto, National Institute for Consumer Research


This paper will focus on the development of Nordic consumer policy. We will use a historical approach to describe the Nordic Consumer Model, and discuss wether there is any common "Nordic Model" (Federspiel 1993). The main question put forward is:

"How has modern consumer policy in the Nordic countries been developed in the tension between market, state and individual, independent consumer organizations?"

With the term "modern consumer policy" we are referring to the development of consumer institutions and consumer laws during the last sixty years, since the depression in the early Thirties. In this paper we include all the Nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway. We will use the theoretical framework developed by Hans Rask Jensen to describe the relation between state, market and consumer organizations.

The relation between producers and consumers can principally be interpreted in three different ways. Rask Jensen has developed three paradigms, trying to describe the economic, social and political relations between producers and sellers on one hand, and consumers on the other (Rask Jensen 1984, 1986).

Within the paradigm of consumer controlled production, consumers have sovereign control over production and distribution of consumer goods. This liberalistic paradigm is reflected in the classical and neo-classical economic theories. In the free market consumers have the right to choose, and her choice reflects consumer needs. According to the paradigm of consumer controlled production there is no need for consumer protection or consumer organizations. A laissez-faire economy is the best guarantee for the solution of consumer problems. Both governmental institutions and consumer advocates must keep their hands off the market. However, consumers are not always fully informed about prices and qualities of consumer goods, and therefore need neutral consumer information.

The second paradigm is called the paradigm of interdependence between production and consumption. Consumer needs are not automatically reflected in the shopping process. It is possible for producers to influence consumers' choice in the market, but in the long run consumers will not be manipulated because consumption has to meet basic

consumer needs. In this market balance, consumers and producers keep eachother in check. Within this paradigm consumer information is a necessary, but insufficient prerequisite to establish balance in the market between producers and consumers. This consumer policy aims at overcoming the information gap between consumers and producers. But at the same time it is necessary to introduce consumer laws to protect consumers against problems created by specific behavior of individual producers and sellers; such as misleading advertising, defective products and exorbitant prices.

In the third paradigm, producers controlled consumption, producers are interpreted as the strongest actor in the market. Producers decide both the production and the demand for consumer goods and services. At the micro level advertising causes new needs and demands among consumers and creates brand loyalty. At the macro level consumers are socialized into a consuming system and ideology controlled by producers and sellers. Within this paradigm consumer information and consumer protection are still important ways to strengthen consumers' behavior in the market. Consumers must be protected, not only against specific producers, but against the market system as a whole. In addition there is fundamental need of consumer influence. According to Rask Jensen this paradigm is reflected in the "critical theory", and even within liberal economists such as Galbraith (Rask Jensen 1986:396).

At each stage in the development of Nordic consumer policy we will discuss which of these paradigms has dominated the choices of consumer political goals and means in the five countries.


Before we turn to the development of the Nordic Consumer Policy, it could be worthwhile to draw a picture of the consumption level and -pattern in the Nordic countries.

Even before the Second World War, a relatively large share of the population in the Nordic countries was, partly or wholly, bound to consumer position. But until the late 1950s, the difference between the Nordic countries and some of the more developed capitalist countries (England, USA) was still great. From then on this difference started to diminish, although at different rates in each of the Nordic countries. The rate was perhaps slowest in Sweden which did not suffer from war and was, already then a relatively developed market economy, and highest in Finland, the traditionally less developed of the Nordic countries. This development due to the accelerating trends in the private consumption, salaried work and urbanization. Altogether, these tendencies were highly related to the rapid increase of GNP in all Nordic countries.

The consumerization of population in Nordic countries has been by nature not onlya quantitative, but also a qualitative trend. The dependency of people on goods produced by other people grew, and the orientation towards the sphere of consumption became more keen. This dependency increased, for instance, by the fact that due to changes in the division of labour, women moved from households to labour markets (Position of women 1984, 74-85). In 1992 only 5% of Danish women between 25 and 54 years worked at home, and the percentages for the other Nordic countries were 8% in Finland, 10% in Iceland and Norway and 4% in Sweden (Nordic Council of Ministers 1994a:79.) Consequently, the growing number of products used at home were purchased on commodity markets. Many studies on lifestyle, in turn, showed how especially younger generations had become more and more interested in consumption and goods (Finn-Monitor 1975 and 1985).

The New Form of Consumption Pattern

The other indication of emerging new qualities in consumer position was the new form of consumption pattern. The change generally follows Engel's statistical curve that shows how the percentage of food consumption, as part of total consumption decreases when the income level rises. Just before the war the percentage of food consumption was: in Denmark 32.5%, in Finland 35.2%, in Norway 32.0% and in Sweden 32.7%. In the 1975 the numbers were respectively 18.3%, 23.4%, 22.3% and 20.2% (Laurila-Kallinen 1985). Today food consumption (exclusive of alcohol and restaurant services) only contains about 15% of the total consumption in most Nordic countries. The latest figures from 1990 show: 14.4% in Denmark, 18.6% in Finland, 19.7% in Iceland, 15.6% in Norway and 18.4% in Sweden (Nordic Council of Ministers 1994a:246-254), but the percentages have continued to decline during the last five years.

Nordic consumers use most of their money on housing. In 1990 Danish consumers used 34.5% of their money for housing and heating. For the other countries the percentages were 17% in Finland, 15% in Iceland, 27% in Norway and 25.5% in Sweden. The increasing consumption areas are transport and communication with between 16% (Denmark) and 19% (Norway) and recreation and entertainment with between 11%(Sweden) and 16% (Finland) in 1990 (Nordic Council of Ministers 1994a:246-254).

The Transformation of Distribution Systems

The increase of private consumption, the rise of its volume and the enlargement of assortments together with the branding of products were also related to the marked transformation of the institutional and physical frames of distribution. In the Nordic countries the wholesalerd and retailers started to concentrate in the 1960's. They formed chains that operated on the national level (B÷÷k-Ilmonen 1989). Shops were partly relocated in this process. They closed down in the country side and moved to densely populated settings, into newly-built retail units that were far more advanced and larger than their earlier versions. Consequently, large areas of Nordic countries lost their services in the beginning of the 1970's. This process continued through outboth the 1970's and 1980's, with big shoppingcenters as the dominating concept (Lavik and St° 1992).

This horizontal and vertical concentration in the Nordic retail system, has continued during the last five years (Jacobsen and Dulsrud 1994). Let us use Norway as an example. Three retail groups control more than three quarters of the Norwegian grocery market. Parallel to this, the distribution system is increasingly integrating vertically, thereby assuming control over wholesalers. Discount shops have also experienced an especially strong growth, with a market share of close to one third. The new challenge to the Nordic retail system is internationalization of the market and international competition. Since both Sweden and Finland have joined Denmark in the European Union, this could open for stronger competition in the Nordic market of consumer goods and services.

Emergence of New-Poverty

We have also recently seen an emergence of new-poverty in the Nordic counties (Lunde and Poppe 1991, Nordic Council of Ministers 1994b). Since the late 1980's all the Nordic countries have experienced economic problems, and this is of course reflected in the consumption level and in consumption pattern. The main Key-words are unemployment and debt-crisis. The debt-crisis is partly a result of unemployment, but also a consequence of socio-economic reforms, including deregulation of financial markets, decreasing inflation and changes in the tax-system. This new situation represents a challenge to the consumer organizations and consumer authorities. New consumer laws, dealing with the debt-crisis, were passed by parliaments in Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden.

To sum up, the population in the Nordic countries today is bound more tightly to a consumer position than before. The price and quality of consumer goods today are of criotical importance for the well-being of the people in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. During the last 60 years consumer problems have changed dramatically, from shortage of money, food and housing, to more modern problems related to marked competence, but also an emergence of new-poverty problems.

The economic and social dependency on consumption has grown at the same time as its ability to master the growing flow of goods and services in the market has been more difficult (Ilmonen 1987). The distribution system concentrated at same time, both economically and physically, and this placed people as consumers in a completely new situation. Consequently, the need emerged to structure this new condition both cognitively and legally. In the next part of this paper we will see how these changing consumer problems are reflected in Nordic consumer policy.


In many ways consumer policy and consumer organization are a post Second World War phenomenon. On the other hand, consumer problems have existed as long as consumer goods have been sold on the market. The first consumer co-operatives were founded in Rochdale as early as 1844, and just after the turn of the century, unions of consumer cooperatives were established in Denmark (1896), Sweden (1899), Finland (1904) and Norway (1906). During the next 50 - 60 years consumers co-operatives played an important part in Nordic labour and consumer policy. Consumer co-operatives still play an important economic role in the distribution of groceries, with a market shares of more than 20% in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. But, on the other hand, the consumer cooperatives have lost their social and political importance.

The first individual consumer organization was founded in France in 1912, and its main task was to give information to consumers. The first American organization was founded in 1927 (Consumer Research) and 1936 (Consumer Union). At the same time the first elements in a modern consumer policy were created in USA (New Deal) and Europe (Social Democrats).

Goals and means in Nordic consumers policy have been established and developed in four phases since 1935, and this is also the case with consumer organizations on an individual and governmental level (St° 1989). As far as Norway, Denmark and Sweden are concerned these phases are synchronized in time. The same phases are found in Finland as well, but the phases are not synchronized with the three other countries. The development of consumer policy in Iceland has been different from the four other countries, and these phases are not found as clearly as in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

The First Phase, 1936 - 1940: Home-Economic Institutions and Consumer Information

In this first phase, consumer policy and consumer interests were defined in a very narrow way. Consumer problems were linked solely with questions concerning home-economics. This consumer policy was developed within the first paradigm, consumer-controlled production, with consumer information as the only mean. Denmark established the first Nordic consumer institution in 1935, when the Danish Government Home Economics Council (Statens husholdningsrsd) were founded. The following year the Norwegian Guidance Service for Home Economics (Veilednings-tjenesten i Husstell) was established, with 20 local offices around the country. In Sweden, the Home Economics Research Institute (Hemmenes forskningsintitut) was founded in 1944.

As the names of these institutions indicate, they were mainly concerned with consumer problems in the kitchen. Consumers had to learn how to prepare food and take care of clothes. Most of the information from consumer institutions to consumers referred to housekeeping and home-economics. Consumer institutions were only slightly concerned with consumer protection and questions relevant to the market of goods and services. It is worth noting that the goal of consumer information was to strengthen consumers' rational behavior at home, but not in the market.

The Second phase, 1945 - 1967: National Consumer Institutions, Consumer Information in Home-Economics and Market Conditions

As far as Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland are concerned, this is the phase when national consumer institutions were established by the government. The Danish Consumer Council started as early as 1947, the Norwegian Consumer Council in 1953, the Swedish National Consumer Council in 1957, and finally the Finnish Consumer Council in 1965. All institutions were established by the government, and received 100% financial support by Parliament. However, they were relatively politically independent of their governments, and members of orgtanizations representing of women and households, as well as labour organization representatives were on the board of the Consumer Council.

During this second phase declaration committees for consumer goods were established in all the Nordic countries, with the exception of Iceland. These committees were designed to set up voluntary agreements with producers regarding labelling of consumer goods. The scope of consumer information was changing in this period, from home economy to market economy. There was still consumer information about the use of consumer goods, but in addition the new consumer institutions were concerned about market practice. They started their consumer magazines in this period.

Two other phenomena in Nordic consumer policy in this period are worth noting. The first independent consumer organization was established in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1953, and Norway appointed an own Minister of Consumer Policy and Family Affairs in the government in 1955. This indicates, among other things, that governments in the Nordic countries wanted to play a more active role in consumer policy. They were already concerned with regulation of price competition, and in Norway a Price Act was passed by Parliament in 1949. But so far, this consumer policy was still mainly developed within the first paradigm of Rask Jensen, consumer-controlled production. In many ways the late 1950s represent the highlights of this paradigm. The last regulations of imports and exports were abolished and the market of consumer goods was relatively free. This was the situation in the following decade.

The Third Phase, 1968 - 1982: Reorganization of Consumer Institutions, Consumer Information and Consumer Protection

During this third period various consumer political changes took place in the Nordic countries. Some of these changes were the same in all countries, and this emphasized the special Nordic model of consumer policy. First of all, a lot of important general consumer law were passed by the Nordic parliaments in these years. The right to redress was ensured by a general sales of goods act (Bjark°y, 1993) and consumers were protected against unfair and misleading advertising by a market control act (Graver 1986, Bernitz 1984). In addition various other consumer laws were adopted in some of the Nordic countries. There are differences between the national laws, but by and large consumers enjoy the same level of protection in all the Nordic countries.

The 1970's was the decade when consumer protection and consumer policy was put on the agenda. The rising consumer offensive was part of a world-wide movement. In this offensive a number of consumer acts were passed by parliaments, and the consumer organizations strengthened their positions. In the early 1970's many reforms were introduced in the consumer policy. In USA for example, more than 25 consumer laws were passed by Congress between 1967 and 1973 (Pertschuk 1982).

The Nordic countries were not content with simple adopting new laws, and at the same time new consumer protection institutions were established. The Marketing Control Act in the beginning of 1970s set up a seperate institution - the Consumer Ombudsman - to enforce the law. Consumer complaint boards were introduced to ensure consumers' right to redress. These consumer laws and consumer institutions manifest the transition from the first to the second paradigm (interdependence between production and consumption), and also with strong elements of the third paradigm (producer-controlled consumption). Consumer information stil is a matter of vital importance, and consumer magazines played an important part in this informationprocess. But as numerous consumer laws were adopted in all the Nordic countries, consumer protection is became the most important political means by the end of 1970s.

We are talking about a Nordic consumer political model, and this model was created in the third phase in the 1970s. But at the same time, reorganization of consumer institutions in the Nordic countries took different directions. In Sweden governmental control was ensured by an amalgamation of all consumer institutions to a National Board of Consumer Policy (Konsumentverket) in 1973. Even the Consumer Ombudsman was subordinated this National Board. In Denmark and Finland the consumer institutions retained their relative independence, and the Consumer Council in both countries became a consumer organization based on membership from organizations and individual consumers. The Norwegian solution was a compromise between the Danish, Finish and Swedish models; independent consumer organizations without individual members. The individual consumer organization in Iceland, Neytendasamt÷kin, was established as a national institution in 1982.

The Fourth Phase, 1983 - 1995: Deregulation, Reorganization of Consumer Institutions and European Harmonization

This fourth phase is more complex in two ways. Firstly, there are big differences between the countries. Secondly there are various tendencies within the same country. Although deregulation formed the main current stream in Nordic consumer policy in this periode, new consumer laws were passed by parliaments of all four countries. These were laws dealing with product safety and product liability on one hand and consumer economy and consumer credits on the other.

As far as consumer institutions are concerned, the Danish consumer institution was reorganized in 1988 and the Finnish in 1990. After the 1991 election in Sweden the new government set up a committee to evaluate consumer policy in and propose political and organizational changes. The Swedish National Board of Consumer Policy have various tasks. They give information to consumers, articulate consumer interests, act as consumer political authorities and enforce the Marketing Control Act (The Consumer Ombudsman). The main idea behind this evaluation process was to discuss a possible separation of the consumer information and articulation of interests from the consumer political authority activity. The result of this evaluation is a separation, but within the National Board of Consumer Policy.

The conservative government in Norway started a similar process as early as 1982, but its proposals were not approved by Parliament. Today (1995) the Labour government has set up a new committee to evaluate the organizational aspects of Norwegian consumer policy. The goals are very much the same as in Sweden, even though the separation between various functions, has been, for many years, much stronger in Norway than in Sweden. The committee will finish its work in the summer of 1995.

The background and reason for this new process of reorganization are different in the four countries, and the consequences vary correspondingly. In Denmark the creation of the National Consumer Board meant a centralization of the governmental consumer policy. To a certain degree this was also the case in Finland, but the Consumer Research Institute, Consumer Ombudsman and Consumer Complaint Board remained independent institutions. In Sweden the evaluation process will move the Swedish consumer policy slightly in another direction, with a separation of the consumer authorities from the articulation of interests and public services, with the National Consumer Board. And the same can happen in Norway, even though for many years the situation in Norway has been different from that in Sweden.

In addition the Finnish individual consumer organization was reorganized as the Finnish Consumer Association in 1991, an independent consumer organization both with individual consumers and organizations as members. A similar organization has also been established in Sweden (1991).

It is still meaningful to used the concept of a special Nordic way of organizing consumers? The final results of these different reorganization processes could be that consumer institutions in the Nordic countries are drawing closer to one another. There will, of course, still be differences. But all the four largest countries will have strong governmental institutions dealing with consumer complaints, advertising and other legal consumer problems. At the same time consumer interests will be taken care of by institutions independent of the government, or more independent than they were before this fourth phase in Nordic consumer policy started. Iceland is the only exception to this rule.

Denmark has been a member of the European Community since 1973, and Finland and Sweden eachjoined the European Union in 1995, after a national referendum. Norway and Iceland have decided not to join the EU, but have signed the EEA agreement (the European Economic Area). Since this new wave in the European integration process started in 1987-88, the Nordic governments have always looked to Brussels when they made important political decisions, even in the field of consumer policy. This means that during the last seven years, the Nordic and European consumer policies have approached each other. This internationalization of Nordic policy has played a vital part in Nordic consumer policy since 1988.


In the first and second period of Nordic consumer policy, from 1935 to 1967, consumer policy was developed within the paradigm of consumer controlled production (Rask-Jensen 1984). During this period official consumer documents did not emphasize the conflict between consumers and the market, nor did they stress basic consumer problems related to market activity. Although consumers in these documents were not looked upon as kings in the market, it was a common understanding that they would benefit from the market economy. The main consumer problem related to the market was lack of information about goods and services, and this problem could be solved by consumer magazines, product labelling, product testing and consumer education in schools. Educated and informed consumers were regarded as the best guarantee of rational consumer behavior.

In the next period, from 1968 to 1982, the relationship between consumers and market was seen as more problematic, for three reasons:

- consumers were not as rational and informed as assumed in the economic theories

- there was lack of competition in the market, because of strong monopolies

- consumers had difficulty in influencing the supply and quality of consumer goods

The market is not only the true friend of consumers, it is an enemy or a potential enemy, at the same time. Consumers are the weak actors in the market and need protection against sellers and producers. The result of this change in paradigm in the late Sixties, was new consumer laws and new consumer institutions in the following decade.

The 1970s was the decade when consumer protection and consumer policy were placed on the agenda. This created a shift in paradigm from the consumer-controlled production to a more a producers-controlled consumption, or at least an interdependence between production and consumption (Rask-Jensen 1984). That is, producers are seen as the strongest actor on the market. They decide both the production and the demand of consumer goods and services by advertisement and product promotion. So, there was a need, not only to protect consumers, but also to increase their influence on market mechanism. This consumer offensive was part of a world-wide movement, but is was probably strongest in the Nordic countries. In this offensive a number of consumer act were passed by parliaments, and the consumer organizations strengthened their position.

In the Nordic countries marketing control acts were passed by parliaments, and a new body, the Consumer Ombudsman was established to enforce these acts. Consumers were protected against offensive marketing in new the Door-to-sales Act, and the right to redress was strengthened after radical changes in the Purchase Acts in all the Nordic countries (Graver 1986, Bjark°y 1993).

The third phase of Nordic consumer policy can be seen as the expression of mistrust of market mechanism. Because it does not work in a proper way, in other words in the way theory describes it, the consumer is not the king of markets, but the weakest part of the game. Therefore the consumer is protected, only to reasonably extent.

In the last period of consumer policy, 1982 - 1995, the thrust in market mechanism in policy making has been revitalized. Since the collapse of communist rule it has been easy to defend the ideology that although consumer is not a king, markets are the most effective way to get an economic system to work (see SOU 1985:32, 185). An apparent conclusion of this view is that all regulation and state institutions that aim to control markets must be minimized.

One of the most important elements in the Nordic setting has been the welfare state and its institutions. The scholars of market liberalism openly attacked it in the 1980s. Their message was by nature mostly political. It claimed that the welfare state meant, at least partly, the ineffective use of national resources, it was morally devastating and that it hinder the free function of labour markets. An the end of the decade all of the Nordic nations faced a deep economic recession and problems with the financial sector. This offered market liberals a good reason to start to tear down the structures of the welfare states and the related state elements. This was also mirrored in consumer policy.

Today we find various tendencies even within each Nordic country. It is easy to note that there are differences between them, but the main picture is one of strong similarities. First of all, the consumer political documents emphasize consumer information as an important consumer political means. Not instead of consumer laws, but in addition to consumer protection. This suited the new purpose to improve the resources of households and to increase the efficiency of their uses of these resources (The Finnish Consumer Council 1983, 10-20; SOU 1985:32, 74).

Secondly, the governmental consumer organizations have been reorganized in order to meet the challenges from the market economy. As an alternative to these reorganizations a support for local and voluntary solutions has been suggested ( SOU 1985:32, 74, 107-108). The only problem with this strategy is that there are no strong voluntary organizations or movements which are primarily founded on consumer matters. It is difficult to see how these could be created from the grass root level. The only alternative is to lean on existing mass movements like trade unions and consumer co-operative movements, but there are doubts as to how well they would articulate consumer interests.

In summary, there are three general trends in the Nordic consumer policy in the latest phase. They are:

a) stress on market mechanism and competition,

b) the importance of local and voluntary consumer organizations

c) the importance of consumer information.

This change means a return towards the paradigm of consumer-controlled production. But due to the strength of the Nordic model of the welfare state consumer protection laws are still in force. Therefore, the emerging paradigm is a mixture of old and new, and could be named in Rask-Jensens terms " an interdependence between production and consumption" (1984).

According to the new paradigm, consumer needs are not automatically reflected in the shopping process. Producers are able to influence consumer choice, but in the long run they must meet basic consumer needs. In a sense, a balance on the market emerges. Consumers and producers keep eachother in check. This is possible only so far as consumers are informed enough. That is a necessary, but insufficient, prerequisite to establish a balance between producers and consumers, because consumers are still seen as a weaker partner in this relationship. In addition consumer protection is needed. However, it should not be too covering or determining, as it might disturb the free function of market mechanism.


The last period of consumer policy started in the beginning of 1980's, and we are still in a phase of deregulation and decentralization. The need to regulate the market and protecting the consumer has been countered by an international movement towards deregulation. This movement became a political force as early as in the late 1970's, especially in North America and Western Europe. It is also reflected in the consumer policy in the Nordic countries, but so far only minor changes have taken place.

During the 1980's new consumer laws were passed by parliaments, but at the same time governments emphasized the relationship between consumer protection and the market in a new way. The contradiction between the market and protection is to a certain degree replaced by a positive interdependence between market economy and consumer policy in the official consumer documents. This change in the consumer paradigm does not mean a change back to the Fifties; the balance between market and state is established at a new level, compared with the consumer policy of the first decade after the Second World War.

In the new model of Nordic consumer policy, the state is not given as decisive a role as before. This is not needed, because consumers are not considered as weak as during the former phase of consumer policy. Rather they are not seen as dominating partners in market relationship, but strong enough to keep producers in check.

The change in the Nordic consumer political model can easily be interpreted as an anticipation to the present consumer policy of the European Union. According to the the consumer policy programs and consumer directives of the EU, the right to choose and the right to be informed is given higher priority than to the right to be heard and the right to safety (St÷ 1990, 1991: 15-17). This also means that information is clearly considered to be more important than other means of consumer policy. Consumers' influence within the EU is thought to be ensured through the market mechanism and independent consumer organizations. Consumer protection is also important, but only under certain conditions can reference be made to consumer safety in order to restrict market competition.

Will it still be meaningful in the future to use the concept of the Nordic model of consumer policy? There is no clear answer to that. There will apparently be some changes in Nordic consumer policy. The final result of this process depends to a large degree on the development of consumer policy within the European Union. This is the case because Denmark, Sweden and Finland are members of the EU, and Norway and Iceland have signed the EEA-agreement with the EU, and linked very close ties with the consumer policy in the EU. The central questions concern which level of consumer policy will be developed within the EU, and the possibility of maintaining the Nordic consumer political goals and means within the European Union.


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Eivind Sto, National Institute for Consumer Research


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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