Our Taxes Get A Diet: The Code Attacks The Overweight & Obesity Epidemic
Volume 85, No. 4, Summer 2013
By Lauren Ridley

In 2010, twenty-four-year-old Melissa Moss experienced weight-loss success for the first time in her life. After suffering through failed diet after failed diet since the age of fourteen, Melissa finally reshaped her unhealthy lifestyle and lost forty-five pounds in six months. While Melissa’s success might bring to mind common weight-loss rewards, such as lower cholesterol, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, and better blood pressure, another dramatic effect of undergoing weight loss exists—debt. While Melissa Moss experiences many of the positive benefits of successful weight-loss treatment, she now also faces four thousand dollars’ worth of credit-card debt.

Despite only earning fifteen dollars per hour, Melissa enrolled in a collectively focused weight-loss plan run by George Washington University Weight Management Program, at a cost of about eight hundred dollars per month. She did so because she knew that she “needed intensive help.” Melissa was obese and her cholesterol levels were dangerously high, but despite her doctor’s suggestion to lose weight, her insurance company refused to cover the program.

Melissa Moss is not alone in her battle to overcome weight problems, or in her efforts to fund those efforts. Obesity and overweight have reached epidemic proportions in America. And while the United States has made great progress in the field of public health over recent decades, the obese and overweight conditions of millions of Americans run the risk of “wip[ing] out the gains we have made” in public health. Those inflicted with obesity or overweight run the risk of suffering from conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, to name only a few of the potential chronic health problems. As a result, the Surgeon General of the United States released the first ever “Call To Action” in 2001, in which he called upon “the close cooperation and collaboration of a variety of organizations and individuals,” to combat this public health crisis.

Acknowledging a change in the public health scenery, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) responded to the Surgeon General’s Call to Action by allowing taxpayers to receive obesity-related treatment at a lower cost. The IRS acknowledged obesity as a disease for the first time in 2002 and allowed a taxpayer to deduct obesity-related treatment expenses as medical expenses under § 213 of the Internal Revenue Code (the Code).

Treating obesity is expensive, and millions of Americans are faced with the same ultimatum as Melissa Moss: choosing between significant debt or their health. Melissa chose the latter. And while she has finally found a solution to treating her obesity, she has incurred the new problem of debt. Because Melissa’s insurance provider refused to cover her treatment, Melissa was forced to take a second job as a waitress in order to try to pay back her surgery costs.

This Comment sets out to analyze how providing a tax benefit for weight-loss expenses fits within the purview of tax law. It proposes that, in addition to obesity-related expenses, overweight individuals should receive a tax benefit for weight-loss expenses. Section 213 currently can be interpreted as allowing obesity- and overweight-related treatment expenses as deductible; however, this deduction only gets taxpayers and policymakers part of the way. This Comment argues that the most effective vehicle to implement the tax benefit is through a refundable tax credit. Because including a tax benefit for obesity- and overweight-related expenses can exist under the current § 213 framework, this Comment first analyzes this inclusion under the § 213 deduction, where there is no need for new legislation. Ideally, however, Congress would modify the tax benefit for certain medical expenses, using the same § 213 analysis, and recognize the need for a refundable tax credit for obesity- and overweight-related expenses with new legislation.

READ ARTICLE…Ridley – 85 – L – Rev – 951