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Coca-Cola funded research by WVU public health dean

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The now-dean of West Virginia University’s School of Public Health says Coca-Cola funded diet and exercise research that he helped lead and also paid for the creation of a health nonprofit of which he’s a “founding member” and “co-vice president.”

But Greg Hand, who left the University of South Carolina last year to become the first permanent dean of WVU’s public health school, said Monday that a New York Times piece published Sunday on Coca-Cola’s funding of his studies and the Global Energy Balance Network nonprofit — which The Times said “promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise” — is a “complete misrepresentation of what we do and why we’re doing it.”

“I think the purpose of the network is to understand that intake and expenditure are both part of a healthy lifestyle,” he said. “One is not more important than the other.”

Walter Willett, chairman of the Harvard University School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition, said The Times’ article was “on target,” and said substantial research shows that an increase in caloric intake — of which sugar-sweetened drinks play a large part — is the driving reason behind the growth of U.S. obesity since the mid-1970s.

He said research has shown the average low-income household consumes three daily servings of sugar-sweetened beverages, so consumers there would have to burn off 700 extra calories a day to compensate.

He compared Coca-Cola’s efforts to that of the tobacco industry to sow doubt in well-established science concerning the harm of their products.

“They claimed that tobacco was not a problem and they found some people in the academic community to support them,” Willett said. “You can always buy somebody, it seems. And it’s really unfortunate that some members of our academic community essentially go on the payroll of Coca-Cola, either directly or indirectly.”

The Associated Press reported in September that a report by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found adult obesity rates at 35.1 percent in West Virginia, tied with Mississippi for the highest adult obesity rate in the country. The report marked the first time a state has surpassed 35 percent.

“We have great faith in the objectivity of Greg Hand as the dean of our School of Public Health and feel like his research is not influenced by sources and funding,” said Clay Marsh, WVU’s vice president of health sciences…

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