Tribute to Richard Daines: Health, Sugar & Taxes

March 18, 2011 | 22 comments
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0a-Richard-Daines

When I learned that Richard Daines, a fellow New York City Mormon, passed away last month, I knew I wanted to write something about him for several reasons. First, I like writing about Mormons outside of the Wasatch-front bias of Mormon culture. Second, I have my own bias towards New York City, and third, I admire his political achievements.

I didn’t know Daines personally—I think that I met him once or twice at stake events, but since he and his family lived in another ward our paths didn’t really cross. Still, he was well-known in the stake.

He was a physician, one who found that he had administrative abilities. After years of practice at St. Barnabas Hospital in the troubled central Bronx, Daines was named the hospital’s Medical Director in 1994, moving to the Manhattan-based St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in 2000 as its Medical Director, and then President and CEO in 2002.

At St. Luke-Roosevelt, one of the more important Hospitals in New York City, Daines soon became involved in politics, as happens with the upper management of any institution in a highly-regulated industry. But unlike many CEOs, Daines involvement in politics wasn’t just an attempt to further his company’s interests. Instead he looked to further the interests of his patients—by attacking the obesity epidemic.

In 2007, Daines was named as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Health by then newly-elected governor Elliot Spitzer, and soon put to work trying to make changes to Healthcare in New York State. He implemented the suggestions of the Berger Commission on 21st century healthcare facilities, promoted the development of primary care and patient-centered medical homes and established an office for developing and implementing electronic health records. And he focused national attention on childhood obesity. An important element of his solution to the problem was reducing the demand for sugar sodas by raising their price—through levying a “sin tax” on sugary carbonated beverages.

The governor supported the idea, and even after Spitzer was forced to resign because of an unrelated scandal, his successor, David Paterson (known for being the first blind governor in U.S. history), continued to support the idea. But the state legislature didn’t get on board, derailed by a combination of opposition to any new tax and interest groups threatened by the tax (among the groups was Pepsico, whose headquarters is located in Westchester county, New York).

After four years in office, Daines was not asked to continue as Commissioner by the new governor, Andrew Cuomo, in part because Cuomo had promised during the election not to raise taxes, and late last year Daines became a visiting scholar at the New York Academy of Medicine. He then died unexpectedly late last month from a sudden cardiovascular event.

Still, the idea of a sugar soda tax is being promoted by those convinced it will help fight obesity. Earlier this month journalist Alan Chartock wrote that Daines ‘fought the good fight’ in his attempt to tax sodas, and last week the chairman of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, Michael Seserman, argued in the Albany Times-Union that the state should “Remember Daines, pass beverage tax.” Such a move would provide quite a legacy.

While sin taxes are somewhat controversial, I believe they often have support from Mormons—at least in terms of tobacco and alcohol taxes. From there it is not a very big stretch to a tax on sugary sodas, in my opinion. But given the conservative mantra against taxes, I assume that not many Mormons will make that stretch. I’m sure many of our readers will indicate what they think, and what logic most Mormons do or should use.

Regardless, its clear what Richard Daines thought. And tax or no tax, obesity clearly is a public health problem that needs attention.

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22 Responses to Tribute to Richard Daines: Health, Sugar & Taxes

  1. Tim on March 18, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Two things:

    First, the corn used to make the corn syrup in most soda drinks is subsidized by the government. While the better solution would be to cut off subsidies to corn farmers in the first place, the second-best solution is to tax the final product.

    Second, there’s a direct link between soda consumption and increased Medicaid and Medicare costs (as well as private insurance costs). The link’s just as real as the link between tobacco and lung cancer. Increase the price of soda and I think we’ll see a decrease in the cost of health care. Taxes on soda should at least offset the impact soda makes on the taxes we pay for Medicaid and Medicare.

  2. PaulM on March 18, 2011 at 10:01 am

    If one controls for population shifts in age (the older one gets, the fatter one gets) and genetics (Latinos and African Americans tend to be fatter on average) we are suffering from an obesity epidemic no worse than 1950s America. No need to pay tribute to someone advocating bad policy based on bad math.

  3. Last Lemming on March 18, 2011 at 10:04 am

    By all means, stop subsidizing corn. But taxing only one source of sugar (soda) will just displace sugar consumption to other products (such as juice). If you want to reduce sugar consumption you have to tax all of it, but when it occurs naturally in a product, that gets complicated.

  4. Paul on March 18, 2011 at 10:11 am

    By all means, tax the soda.

  5. Last Lemming on March 18, 2011 at 10:12 am

    we are suffering from an obesity epidemic no worse than 1950s America.

    Let’s see, that would be the same 1950s when life expectancy was almost 10 years shorter than it is now. A lofty standard indeed.

  6. Alison Moore Smith on March 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Government pays for stuff = government controls your stuff

    Personally, I want to pay for my own health care (I do) and decide what I consume. (P.S. I don’t drink sugar sodas.)

    Oh, and nice way to work in the Utah dig.

  7. Jax on March 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    I guess I’m an atypical LDS person who doesn’t like the tobacco and alcohol taxes either. I think the only proper way to control peoples actions is through persuasion and long suffering, not to tax things we disapprove of and subsidize those we do. I suppose the legal system helps control actions as well, but I don’t like its use except for controlling violent or destructive behavior.

  8. Jaime on March 18, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    So sad to hear Brother Daines passed away. I used to spend every Monday night a decade ago at his home, at singles FHE. Such a wonderful, kind, generous man.

    I had no idea of his political involvement, as I haven’t seen him in years, but I entirely agree with the soda tax. As the principal of a NYC middle/high school, I watch students drink soda and teas all of the time. Water is a foreign drink for them. They’d never buy water or juice, if NYC schools allowed sodas in the schools.

  9. Kent Larsen on March 19, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Alison, I don’t know how you think “Government pays for stuff = government controls your stuff” is relevant to taxes on soda. But that idea seems rather simplistic, IMO.

    “Oh, and nice way to work in the Utah dig.”

    Dig, huh. You don’t think there is a bias towards Utah in Mormon culture?

  10. Brad on March 19, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Allison, you don’t pay for your own healthcare unless you don’t have insurance and pay out of pocket the costs of treatment dictated by the marketplace. If you’re insured, then you’re spreading the risk of poor health across a network of participants in which the healthy subsidize the treatment of the unhealthy. For shame…

  11. Stephen Hardy on March 19, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I find this topic to be interesting. I have not previously heard of Richard Daines, but I found myself wishing that I would have known him. As a physician, a pediatric gastroenterologist, and someone with an interest in childhood obesity, I find this topic to be interesting and very timely. Here are my comments (at least one of which I may truly regret.)
    First to Kent Larsen: Great topic, and as always, carefully written.
    Next, to PaulM: You said that “if one controls for population shifts in age (the older one gets, the fatter one gets) and genetics (Latinos and African Americans tend to be fatter on average) we are suffering from an obesity epidemic no worse than 1950s America. No need to pay tribute to someone advocating bad policy based on bad math.”
    Interesting comment. I have never heard this suggested before. The rates of obesity have been increasing everywhere in the U.S. (maybe they are finally leveling off now, but there has been a substantial increase everywhereand not just in areas that have a higher rate of immigrant populations. I have never heard it suggested that this epidemiological explosion was due to aging (remember, in my case, I have looked at childhood obesity rates only, so aging does not apply… we are comparing 12 years then to 12 year old.) or to immigrant influence. Also, is it true that Africans in Africa have high obesity rates? Certainly there are certain areas (Puerto Rico, Samoa) where populations have a very high rate of obesity, But Mexico? Brazil? I have never understood that our obesity problem here was related to over-weight immigrants from these places (which would therefore need to have obesity rates higher than those in the U.S.) moving here. Obesity is strongly related to low socioeconomic status for a number of reasons, so immigrant populations are over-represented in obesity data. But I have never understood that the obesity numbers would return to 1950s numbers if we somehow factored these populations out. Do you have a source or reference?
    Finally, to Alison Moore Smith: (Here is the comment that I might regret, because it is personal. I feel that I can make such a comment because you are a permablogger here.) I am a frequent lurker here, and only an occasional participant. Because of this, I sometimes notice patterns of some of you who “permabloggers”. I am occasionally astonished at your ability to find offense where none is intended. I wouldn’t write such a note, except that I can’t resist doing it based on your pattern of responses. I didn’t read anything in Kent Larsen’s submission here that was flippant, or aggressive or disrespectful in any way. Indeed, when I read his submissions I find that he is constantly trying to engage us, but not offend us. I may disagree with him from time to time, but I never find him to be sarcastic or offensive. Perhaps I am over-reacting and you are being playful. (I know that humor on the internet can be tricky. When I was a YM’s President, we were doing something on survival, and I invited all of the young men (in an e-mail) to “bring machetes” to Mutual. I thought that this was so obviously ridiculous that I didn’t add any emoticons, or smiley faces, etc. I was surprised to see a few parents up in arms, and a few boys with machetes at Mutual.) So, perhaps I am over-reacting to the tone of your entire post, and especially the tone of this comment:
    “Oh, and nice way to work in the Utah dig.”
    What Utah dig? I thought I must have mis-read something. I went back and read it again. A Utah dig? Where? Are you looking for offense?
    By reading between the lines, it appears to me that the “permabloggers” at this site get together (virtually, I’m sure) from time to time to discuss rules, limits, topics, etc. I assume that all of you feel some responsibility to “behave” on these pages. That is, I assume that the permabloggers feel a sense of responsibility to speak respectfully and to keep us on topic, to keep us from “ad hominem” attacks. So, it seems surprising to me that you so often appear snarky and angry. You did it recently with Julie Smith, who posted an innocent statement that appeared to rile you up.
    I know that you are conservative, and that you are proud of that. I am not a conservative. (The only Republican I ever voted for was Ronald Reagan the first time he was elected President. I have always been ashamed of that vote… but that’s me.) However, I respect conservatives. I respect them greatly. I believe that any Mormon who isn’t conservative ought to at least respect the conservative point of view or they will be miserable in our culture. I understand, on this topic for example, that substantial arguments against a “sugar tax” could be made. I also believe that our government has an interest in having a healthy and well-educated population, and therefore has an interest in understanding childhood obesity, and an interest in limiting it, if it can be done without resorting to “extreme” measures. The definition of that word, “extreme” is what this can all boil down to. Whatever the definition, I don’t believe in living in a police state where the government controls our menus, our choices, and our diets. I am ready to engage in a debate, and I welcome a thoughtful conservative point of view.
    There, now I have done it. I have been offensive even as I chastise you for being offensive.

  12. Jax on March 19, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Moved from Utah a few years ago and admit to having a Utah bias. But I can’t stand the place or a high percentage of the Mormons there; for a variety of reasons but it usually boils down to their equating wealth to righteousness.

    That said, I didn’t see a Utah dig at all. All he said was he wanted to talk about an LDS man who wasn’t from Utah.

  13. Bryan inVA on March 19, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    I’m sure Brother Daines was well meaning and sincere in his desire to reduce sugary beverage consumption and that reducing the intake of these drinks would have a positive health benefit to society. However, this tax proposal is flat out elitist in the sense that this is a classic Liberal idea that the teeming masses aren’t smart enough to choose for themselves and have to be told how to behave. The governing elites enacting such a law would still be able to drink as much soda pop as they want because the tax wouldn’t be high enough to affect their consumption habits. The only lower class would be affected. We see the same thing happening with the Global Warming crowd. The stated desire is to reduce one’s carbon usage while providing an out for the elites via carbon credits. Again, only the less affluent have their carbon usage reduced. This sugary soda tax idea is right out of Orwell’s Animal Farm – all sugary soda drinkers are equal, but some are more equal than others.

  14. Clair on March 19, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    I don’t have a comment on the sugar tax, but I know Richard’s Utah family fairly well – absolutely wonderful people. They have a legacy of community service here. It was sad to read of his untimely death.

  15. Jon on March 22, 2011 at 2:15 am

    I’ll have to agree with Jax on this one. Government should not be socially engineering anyone and should not be involved in telling people what they can or cannot do, which does not involve the harm of others (see the non-aggression principle).

    Let’s see here. Government causes problem by subsidizing the sugar industry (corn) and by subsidizing the medical industry. This creates poor incentives for the way people act, which is probably unintentional. So the solution is more government interference? Why not less? Why don’t they set up a fund to try and get Washington to stop the subsidies and then stop subsidizing medical costs (and, for that matter, stop licensing doctors, etc)?

    Men were meant to have liberty (see Mosiah 29:30-31,38) and as such should not have the “state” (since this is not a function of government it is called the state) steal from them. Men have natural consequences (see Leviticus 18:28-29) to their actions and, as such, need not have the state temper their desires. It is given unto man to use natural persuasion and long suffering, which is better than the sword (taxes in this cases, which is the same as the sword), to change the actions of their fellow man (see Alma 31:5).

  16. Stephen Hardy on March 22, 2011 at 2:32 am

    How would the state stopping licensing doctors help anything?

  17. Jon on March 22, 2011 at 2:52 am

    @Stephen,

    It’s called the free market. Let the free market reign and you will see lower prices. Licensing doctors etc is just a way for doctors etc to keep out competition.

    Why did you look at a part of my argument that isn’t the core of my argument? I know I probably shouldn’t have put it in my argument since it doesn’t have much to do with the core argument but why scrutinize that part? Just wondering, in my arguments on blogs I put in too much information and then have to write side comments to explain things that shouldn’t need explaining, so, yes it is my fault I have to write this but why focus on something minute in the originally argument?

  18. Stephen Hardy on March 22, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Sorry to focus on a small part. Its not clear to me, at least, that the relative lack of a free market in medicine in the U.S. is the issue here. If you look at countries where there is substantially less of a free market in medicine such as Canada and France, you will see that costs are substantially lower, not higher. That pesky government interference seems to result in a better handle on costs. Licensing can be, I agree, a two-edged sword. That is, it can reduce competition. But licensing is important for quality control. There is a reason that licensing came to pass. It is largely related to harm done to people by practices and people that were harmful.

  19. Jon on March 22, 2011 at 8:41 am

    @Stephen,

    Yes, sorry for the rant, I should focus more on the issue and not write down side issues.

    From what I’ve read the people were not clambering for the licenser of doctors when the states decided to start licensing. Kind of like the licensing of professional yoga instructors in Virginia. No one is asking for it but the state of Virginia is going full steam ahead in licensing yoga instructors. We’ve seen a steading increase in costs the more and more doctors et. al. are regulated by the government. As we can see in Canada and France and the US new technologies are stifled in heavily regulated industries and then it becomes very difficult to get any new medicine/technology passed because of this cost barrier and the quality of care goes down. For some reason people start to envy the rich who can afford better care even though it is the rich that can afford the best can and bring down the cost for the rest of us, given time.

    This is a topic that can go on forever. If you want to learn more from my perspective visit mises.org and http://www.cato.org/health-welfare-entitlements .

  20. Stephen Hardy on March 22, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I will visit the CATO website, and look things over.

    Thanks again.

  21. JWL on March 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    While his advocacy of the soda tax garnered some public notice recently, Richard Daines was an example of something much more sweeping, which I believe is Kent’s broader point. Always proudly and unabashedly a Logan boy, unlike so many other Mormons who come to the big city for training and to begin their careers and then move on, Richard stayed and became fully engaged in his new adopted hometown. Using linguistic and cultural knowledge acquired on his mission, he worked for years to maintain and build an important medical facility in one of the most disdavantaged areas of the City (and US). While there, he found himself on the front lines in confronting the spread of AIDS in lower income communities, and became a leader in developing the City’s public health responses to it. Although his unusual background was noted, by the time he entered public service as the State’s top public health official, his years of service and credentials in public health made his appointment quite logical and non-controversial.

    He and his wife Linda were also one of those magnificent couples (like Kent and his wife Michelle) who showed that one can have a genuine LDS family life even in the midst of what so many Mormons regard as the modern Babylon. One can not over-emphasize how much he will be missed.

  22. Kent Larsen on March 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks, Jim. I appreciate the comment. I do feel that involvement in the community where you live is vitally important, and Richard was a prime example of what can happen when you do.