Gregory Hand has been forced out as Dean of the West Virginia School of Public Health amid controversy over funding from Coca-Cola.
The school announced that Dr. Jeffrey Coben, who previously served as the interim dean of public health, will return to that role while a search is conducted for a new dean.
The school said that Hand will take on a new role “in developing partnerships that enhance the mission and work of health sciences at WVU.”
The demotion came less than a year after the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola had given money to Hand to fund a nonprofit group — the Global Energy Balance Network — to promote the view that “weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.”
Health experts say this message is misleading and part of an effort by Coke to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the spread of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, the Times reported.
The health experts contend that the company is “using the new group to convince the public that physical activity can offset a bad diet despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight compared with what people consume,” the Times reported.
“Coca-Cola had provided significant funding to Dr. Hand, who left the University of South Carolina last year for West Virginia,” the Times reported. “The company gave him $806,500 for an ‘energy flux’ study in 2011 and $507,000 last year to establish the Global Energy Balance Network.”
“It is unclear how much of the money, if any, ended up as personal income” for Dr. Hand, the Times reported.
Thirty-five of Dr. Hand’s colleagues, including Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, wrote to the Times that “the scientific nonsense being peddled by the Coca-Cola-funded Global Energy Balance Network is outrageous.”
“The Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee provides compelling evidence for the causal link between sugary drinks and disease, as well as the need for exercise,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, Coca-Cola and its academic helpers won’t accept the well-documented evidence that sugary drinks are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.”
Last year, Gary Ruskin of the public interest group U.S. Right to Know called for Hand to resign or be fired.
Today, Ruskin told Corporate Crime Reporter that “it is not the proper role of public health officials to aid industries, such as tobacco and soda, that bring illness and death to millions.”
“Gregory Hand betrayed West Virginia taxpayers and his public health profession by helping Coca-Cola to evade responsibility for its role in the obesity epidemic,” Ruskin said. “Hand’s role as dean was to improve public health, but he did the opposite.”
“It’s a good start that Hand was removed from his post at dean, but he should be fired from West Virginia University.”
Dr. Marion Nestle is a professor of nutrition at NYU and author of “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)” said told Corporate Crime Reporter last year that “if the move to force Professor Hand’s resignation has one lesson to teach, it is that universities need to establish and enforce much stricter guidelines for use of such funds than has been standard practice.”
“I can’t think of any way that professors can accept corporate funding for their research and maintain academic integrity, but universities can help them with this problem by setting firm limits on how such funds are used,” Nestle says.