Have you ever thought about the amount of money you spend on period products? In 32 states, women’s hygiene products (like tampons, menstrual cups, and sanitary pads) are subject to a luxury tax, which is placed on products or services that are deemed to be non-essential or unneeded. Over time, it became known as the ‘tampon tax,’ which opponents deem a discriminatory tariff on female hygiene products. After all, are condoms taxed? What about Viagra? Both of these products are not taxed in most states even though tampons are just as, if not more, medically necessary.
Beyond that, half the population must buy menstrual products a dozen times a year for about 40 years of their lives. Period equity advocates who believe that everyone should have equal access to female hygiene products want to see tampons treated the same way as condoms, birth control, and yeast infection medication—which are not taxed.
So, why are tampons taxed?
Many aspects of women’s health have been misunderstood and considered taboo throughout history. Because of this, women might be hesitant to speak openly about their periods and are (literally) paying the price for their silence. This is why companies like Cora are destigmatizing periods and producing cost-effective and reusable alternatives like their sustainable menstrual cups that last up to 10 years. As more people begin speaking up about the luxury tax on tampons, more and more states are considering eliminating it this year. According to former President Obama, there’s no reason these products are taxed as luxury items other than the fact that men were making these laws when those taxes were passed.
If you live in a state with a tampon tax, then you’ll be spending between 30 to 50 cents more on each box of tampons. But it adds up over a lifetime, especially if you collectively factor in every person who menstruates. Above all, it sets a clear precedent of gender inequality. Women are disproportionately affected by the retail costs associated with feminine hygiene products. But the good news is, there are advocates working to make period care accessible to all. Here, we share what’s being done about the tampon tax and how you can take action to repeal it.
THE FINANCIAL BURDEN OF THE TAMPON TAX
Women in America are paying upwards of 7 percent (the average U.S. state and local sales tax is 6.25 percent), on a $6.99 pack of tampons, which means roughly an additional 50 cents per box. If you buy one box each month, you’d be paying your state government around $100-$225 over your lifetime. Statewide, it adds up to over $20 million annually in taxes, according to a news release. In the U.S., 25 million women live below the poverty line without consistent access to period products, according to Cora.
In a 2019 survey published in Reuters Health, Anne Sebert Kuhlmann, an associate professor in the College for Public Health and Social Justice at St. Louis University, and her colleagues researched 183 low-income women residents of St. Louis, Missouri. They found that 64 percent of them had been unable to afford period products during the previous year and 21 percent experienced this problem on a monthly basis. Almost half had to choose between food and menstrual products over the past year. Unfortunately, period products are not covered by government grocery-assistance programs such as WIC and SNAP. Placing a luxury tax on tampons makes it even more difficult for women to access basic necessities that allow them to go about their day with dignity. As a result, some women use less sanitary alternatives. The study concluded by stating that a lack of proper menstrual hygiene is linked to many types of infections.
Aside from the United States, there are many other countries (especially those that are predominantly underprivileged), that are affected by the tampon tax. In 2004, Kenya became the first nation to stop taxing menstrual products because millions of women couldn’t afford them. Canada, Malaysia, Australia, and India also dropped the tariff by 2018. Hungary still has the highest tax rate at 27 percent, while Scandinavian countries trail closely behind at 25 percent.
When New Jersey’s tampon tax was repealed in 2005, the tax break was proved to benefit low-income women, according to a 2018 survey published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. If more states and countries repeal the tax, it’ll lessen the burden on women, especially those in more vulnerable socio-economic situations.
WHAT’S BEING DONE ABOUT THE TAMPON TAX?
As people become more adamant about the need for policymakers to repeal the tampon tax, their states are taking notice and enacting change. According to The New York Times, Nevada, New York, Florida, Connecticut, and Illinois eliminated the tax between 2016-2019, while many other states introduced bills to do so too. Five states don’t have a sales tax and five other states including Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania jumped on the tax-exempt bandwagon years before. In the last few months, state legislators in Utah, Rhode Island, and Ohio passed bills to exempt tampon taxes. At the time of this writing, 32 states have yet to revoke their outdated period products bill. California’s tax-free tampons are temporary under their state budget, which will only last from 2020-2022. Unfortunately, a tampon bill was proposed twice in California but failed.
Cora, which is based in California, uses its sales to make period care accessible to all. With every purchase, they provide pads and health education to girls in need in developing nations and here in America. They’ve donated more than 10 million pads to girls in Kenya and India through their partners on the ground in both countries.
Other supporters of menstrual equity continue to argue about the inequitable, and possibly unconstitutional, tax hindering women across the globe. As of July 2019, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a founder of the nonprofit Period Equity, who’s been actively working to repeal the tampon tax, has sought out legal action. In early 2016, she and her Period Equity co-founder Laura Strausfeld were involved in a class-action lawsuit to end the tampon tax in New York. (The first tampon tax lawsuit was successfully filed as far back as 1989 by the city of Chicago.) Their fight to end the discriminatory tariff on female hygiene products resulted in Governor Andrew Cuomo signing a bill to repeal the tax. Plaintiffs dropped the lawsuit and Cuomo called it “a matter of social and economic justice,” according to The New York Times.
Additionally, Period Equity published a briefing paper with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which offers readers an overview of the current state of menstrual product access. This legislative toolkit explains the damaging effects of inequitable access, like infections, missed school, and dehumanization. They also suggest recommendations for legislators and advocates on how to improve menstrual equity in the U.S.
HOW YOU CAN HELP MAKE PERIOD CARE MORE ACCESSIBLE
At a minimum, we should raise awareness for other alternatives like period underwear or menstrual cups that are cheaper, more sustainable options for all. We should also be fighting for an exempted luxury tax on menstrual products and for feminine hygiene products to be included in government assistance programs. (Under the laws governing these programs, individuals who trade food stamps for tampons can actually be prosecuted.) So, the real question is, how does one fight for equity?
According to the ACLU briefing paper, there are necessary steps that advocates can take to help make period care more accessible. Step one is fighting for accountability by ensuring that existing laws around women’s health are being enforced in prisons, schools, shelters, and more.
“Advocate for audits and demand accountability when evidence arises that institutions are not complying with the laws,” the paper explains. Because these laws are unfunded, advocates should help fund or raise money for these institutions to have the resources that women need.
Step two is to support laws that advance menstrual equity, like those that make period products tax-exempt statewide and free for women who are impoverished, detained, and incarcerated.
“These laws should specify that a variety of high-quality menstrual products, including both tampons and pads, should be available in unlimited quantities in a freely accessible area and should include an enforcement or reporting mechanism. If there is such a bill pending in your state, make sure to call your representatives to encourage their support and to thank them if they are working to advance menstrual equity.”
Step three is to advocate that all students have access to free pads and tampons. “Most states do not require that menstrual products be available in public school restrooms. It is not enough that products might be available at the nurse’s office—students should not have to ask an adult for menstrual products but instead should have regular access to them as needed.”
Step four is to speak to local homeless shelters, food banks, and any organizations that provide on the ground services to homeless people. Organize or participate in drives to collect menstrual products or donate to organizations like Period Equity, Helping Women Period and The Homeless Period Project, that are already taking action and raising awareness. “It is critical that all homeless people who menstruate get access to menstrual products, since homelessness is a serious issue in the transgender community; if only women’s shelters stock menstrual products, transgender men and non-binary people may suffer.”
Step five is to engage in public education to raise awareness and reduce stigma. By talking about our experiences with periods, we raise awareness about how essential these so-called “non-essential” products are to women across the globe.