- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

This week, the IRS decided to give obese taxpayers potentially fat tax deductions. It is the first time that the agency has permitted deductions for individuals diagnosed as having been bitten by the obesity bug. And, while the standards are tight, the payoffs, particularly on the political side, could be lard, er, large.

Specifically, the IRS will give the weighty individuals whose heavy obesity-related medical bills and expenses exceed 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income and aren't covered by insurance to deduct treatment costs. Since such treatment can include participation in weight-loss programs, the hefty membership fees are deductible. The agency also expanded the ruling retroactively to 1998.

However much this might permit heavily endowed individuals a good belly laugh, slimmer taxpayers have every reason for a thin frown. After all, the ruling does not allow deductions for individuals who join gyms or weight-control programs to "improve the taxpayer's appearance, general health and sense of well-being."

Yet, if the IRS is attempting to reduce the incidence of obesity, (which is a national epidemic, according to former Surgeon General David Satcher), shouldn't it permit deductions for activities and products that prevent one from becoming obese in the first place? After all, an ounce of prevention could be worth a literal pound of cure. Keep in mind that the only way that obese taxpayers will be able to maintain their annual deduction is by staying obese and investing their deduction in Doritos. Since IRS accountants have suddenly become nutritional experts, perhaps they should also allow deductions for athletic equipment and grant non-profit status to (presumably public-spirited) sports-equipment manufacturers such as Nike and Saucony.

Too silly to stomach? By designating obesity as a disease, the IRS widens the possibility that government programs and insurance companies will treat obesity the same way, and could also fatten the arguments of legislators anxious to legitimize serving fat taxes to taxpayers.

After all, the incidence of obesity could presumably be reduced by raising the cost of fast food. Wall Street Journal columnist Bruce Bartlett recently pointed out, "The same people behind the campaign against tobacco are gearing up to do it again to sugar, fat and the foods that contain them." He noted that California State Sen. Deborah Ortiz has proposed a levy on soft drinks to "diminish the human and economic costs of obesity in this state." That it would also add revenue to California's already bloated budget is, of course, entirely incidental.

The bottom line is that the IRS' designation of obesity as a disease gives legislators of all weight classes a chance to indulge themselves. Will they resist the temptation to gobble? Fat chance.

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