Get Rid of the Tampon Tax
If men got their periods and women did not, “[m]enstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event,” Gloria Steinem wrote nearly 40 years ago. “Men would brag about how long and how much. Boys would mark the onset of menses, that longed-for proof of manhood, with religious ritual and stag parties. Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”
For all the satirical conjecture, she was likely right on the money, especially on that last point. The bad news is there’s still no pending national bill to give away period-related products. The better news is the so-called tampon tax is currently being challenged all over this country and beyond.
Right now in the U.S., of the 45 states that impose sales tax, 40 levy it on sanitary napkin and tampon purchases. That’s not terribly surprising, considering that most items are taxed under individual state laws. But while sales tax codes are notoriously complex and often nonsensical, they are not immutable. Nearly every sales-taxing state offers exemptions for items that are deemed necessities, a list that should include sanitary supplies, considering that biology drives women’s menstruation, and thus the sales of tampons and pads. Yet just five states—Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and New Jersey—don’t make women pay an additional fee for the monthly occurrence of their periods. Everywhere else, sanitary supplies are essentially considered “luxury” or “nonessential items.”
That makes even less sense when you see some of the things that do make the list of exemptions in different states. While medicines, prosthetic devices and most groceries are logically categorized as necessities in most states, they are joined by many items that seem less so. New York State taxes tampons, but not magazines, shoe repair services or attending stock car races. In Kansas, where sanitary pads incur a sales tax, unattached hot air balloon rides can be taken tax-free. In Washington DC, and 15 states that tax tampons and pads, you can get your fill of candy without paying a cent of sales tax. So congrats, ladies, on your periods: while your tampons will run you a bit extra, the chocolate you’re buying with them is priced as marked!
While it seems obvious that Skittles are less critical than sanitary items, there are those who will argue that removing the tampon tax would be another unnecessary entitlement of sorts; that lots of other needed products are taxed as well. But as the Nation notes, menstruation—an uncontrollable fact of life for most women—demands certain items. Our culture’s misogyny and weirdness with female biology means that going without them, or fashioning them on your own, isn’t really an option:
Most disagreement comes down to this—the predictable question that (mostly) men ask: If other necessities are taxed—soap, Band-Aids, toilet paper—why do tampons deserve special treatment? Anyone who has ever had a period (mostly women) knows that one can make do without a bar of soap, that bandages can be improvised and that there’s toilet paper aplenty in public restrooms. Women who don’t have access to menstrual products are prone to reproductive infection, not to mention humiliation. Menstruation simply is different—there is no analogous hygiene need. Period.
Canada, after sustained protest, got rid of federal taxes on feminine hygiene products in 2015. Now a few more U.S. states are moving in that direction. Utah and Virginia are both considering bills that would get rid of sales taxes on sanitary products, as are New York and Ohio. A bipartisan bill in the California legislature introduced by Democrat Cristina Garcia and Republican Ling Ling Chang has the same goal.
“Effectively we are being taxed for being born as women,” Garcia stated in a press release about the proposed measure. “AB 1561 is about social justice, gender equity in our tax code, it's an opportunity to end an outdated tax that uniquely targets women for a function of their body, a function we don't control and can’t ignore every month of our adult life."
“This is a health issue,” Chang said in the same statement. “By taxing these products we are putting up an unnecessary barrier to a necessary health product. It is also about tax relief for women. Collectively we pay $20 million in taxes on feminine hygiene products. By putting that money back in the hands of women, we are creating greater access to a very important health product—especially in low-income and homeless populations.”
While this may not be the defining issue of women’s health, it is gaining traction. Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and Cosmopolitan Magazine (which published Prachi Gupta’s catalytic piece on the issue) started a Change.org petition against tampon taxing that now has nearly 44,000 signatures. There are also movements in Germany, Italy and the UK (where tampons and pads are taxed 19, 21 and 5 percent, respectively) to do away with the tampon tax.
In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, writer Jessica Kane notes that on average, “a woman has her period from three to seven days and...menstruates from age 13 until age 51.” Kane estimates that the total life cost of all the associated products needed to deal with “Aunt Flo,” from Midol to tampons to new underwear, is a little over $18,000. That’s a lot to pay for something that is just a part of living for most women, and taxing pads and tampons is only driving up that cost.
President Obama, in a recent interview with Ingrid Nilsen of YouTube fame (that’s a real thing), was asked about the tampon tax. The president seemed surprised by the information, but then answered after a moment’s thought.
“I have to tell you, I no idea why states would tax these as luxury items,” Obama said. “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when these were passed.”
Hopefully, experience and insight from those who actually use those items will make a difference this time around.