Tampon Tax Extracts a Heavy Toll on Women

Period poverty encompasses the lack of access to the basic necessities for menstruation—hygiene products, of course, but also clean water, sanitation and education about biology and reproduction—and it includes a great deal more than this as well. Without access to these basic necessities, people who menstruate the world over are marginalized and regularly unable to participate in school, work and other activities. With 800 million people menstruating at any given time, removing the barriers to affordable menstrual products are essential. In her new book, Period. End of Sentence. (Scribner, May), Anita Diamant tackles the causes of menstrual inequity, why it is such a problem, which countries and organizations are taking the lead in eradicating it and what else can be done. With a foreword from Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Melissa Berton, the book helps shed light on issues that have so often been shrouded in stigma. In this excerpt, Diamant discusses the so-called "tampon tax" and legislation to make period products more readily available to those who need them.

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Evgeniy Skripnichenko/Getty

Period poverty wears many faces.

It's Sunday night. The bills are paid but there's only $50 to last until Friday. It'll be tight, but just enough to cover bus fare and milk and stuff to make chili or soup. It's good the little ones get breakfast and lunch at school. Then your oldest walks in with an empty tampon box.

It's Monday morning and you lie in bed thinking about the day ahead: math test, track team tryout. I could stuff a wad of toilet paper in my underwear, which means worrying all day: Is it going to leak? Will it fall out? The last time I asked the school nurse for a pad, she was all out, and I really don't want to ask my friends—again. No tryouts for me. Maybe I can keep it together through math. Or maybe I should just stay home.

Menstrual products are expensive. According to one estimate, menstruators spend $17,000 during their lifetime, a figure that includes pads, tampons, panty liners, pain medication and underwear; but that number doesn't account for higher prices paid in poor neighborhoods, where people lack easy access to supermarkets or drugstores. Period poverty exists in every country, every state, every zip code. Period poverty is not the same for everyone: it can mean an empty tampon box or nowhere to dry your cloth pads; it can mean no clean water to wash your hands, no toilets to take care of yourself in private and no way to dispose of what you used.

Period poverty means counting pennies to come up with something as basic as toilet paper, and it can make you miss school or work, which can lose you your job if it happens once too often. Period poverty can mean failing math, or getting put in detention, or maybe you should just quit school altogether. It's a weight, a doubt, a nagging worry that makes you feel out of control, or hopeless, or like a bad mother.

Period poverty is compounded by "the tampon tax," a somewhat misleading term since there is no special tax on tampons, pads or other period products. It's an umbrella term that covers different kinds of levies: state and city sales taxes, value-added taxes and even luxury taxes. Whoever collects the money, the tax is paid only by people who menstruate.

In the United States, sales taxes in most states range from 4 to 7 percent, though in 2020, combined sales tax rates in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Washington hovered around 9 percent. The addition of 90 cents to a 10-dollar box of tampons makes a difference if your food budget is already stretched to the limit.

Some employers in the U.S. offer their workers the option of setting aside a portion of their pay in a Health Savings Account or a Flexible Spending Account. That money, which is not taxed as income, can be used for medical expenses and over-the-counter items, such as antacids, sunscreen and birth control methods including condoms. But not period products.

So, if you had an HSA or an FSA and needed tampons, you paid with money that was taxed as income and again through sales tax. It took the COVID-19 emergency for Congress to amend the rules to include tampons, pads, liners and menstrual cups in the pre-tax category.

People who depend on federal assistance programs (SNAP/food stamps or WIC/women with children) cannot use their benefits for period products, which along with toilet paper and diapers are the three most requested and rarely donated items at shelters and food pantries.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the author of Periods Gone Public and co-founder of the advocacy organization Period Equity, says the tax on period products is sex-based discrimination, unconstitutional and illegal.

An attorney, Weiss-Wolf is leading the charge to get rid of period taxes in all 50 states. She dismisses the argument that repealing taxes on period products would punch big holes in state budgets and asks why revenue should come only from people who menstruate when there are hundreds of exemptions on items that are gender-neutral and utterly nonessential: there is no sales tax on Mardi Gras beads in Louisiana, Texas doesn't tax candy bars and several states exempt snack foods altogether.

But things are getting better.

In 2015, only 10 states exempted period products—and five of those never had sales tax. By 2020, 20 states had abolished the tampon tax, with efforts underway to do the same in the other 30. Some cities—Denver, Chicago and Washington, D.C.—have eliminated local taxes on period products.

There are campaigns to end taxes on period products all over the world, thanks to public pressure, media attention and the growing presence of women in office at all levels. Kenya was the first country to abolish them in 2004. Australia, Canada, Colombia, India, Ireland, Malaysia, Malta, Rwanda and Scotland have followed suit.

As Weiss-Wolf writes in Periods Gone Public, "To have a fully equitable society, we must have laws and policies that take into account the reality that half the population menstruates. Menstrual products should be tax-exempt, affordable and available for all, safe for our bodies and the planet."

Campaigns are also underway to make period products as widely and freely available as toilet paper. In answer to the inevitable question about cost, Nancy Kramer, founder of the Free the Tampons Foundation, says, "Whoever pays for the toilet paper, pays for the pads."

Kramer is an advocate for "restroom equality" and had a hand in getting New York City to provide free period products to public school students in grades six to 12. Two years later, New York state extended that mandate to all its school districts.

Free period products are starting to show up in public bathrooms, with sightings in hotels, restaurants, museums, co-working spaces, retail stores and corporate offices. College students on every continent are demanding them for all bathrooms on campus, and for the most part succeeding.

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Period products are seen in a supermarket on November 25, 2020 in Dunbar, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Scotland is a world leader on the accessibility front. In 2018, after a years-long grassroots campaign, it began requiring all schools, colleges and universities to provide free pads and tampons. And in 2020, the Scottish parliament unanimously passed the Period Products Act, which designated funding for localities to provide them to anyone in need nationwide.

Efforts to make period products accessible are the most visible part of a much more ambitious and radical goal: destigmatizing menstruation itself. Melissa Berton, founder of The Pad Project, says, "Our aim is to raise awareness about how menstrual stigma and the lack of menstrual supplies inhibit women and girls from participating as equal citizens."

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Melissa Berton photographed at the 12th Annual Women in Film Oscar Nominees Party on February 22, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Chloe Wine Collection

Talking about menstruation is talking about power. With every story about another Girl Scout troop collecting pads and tampons for the local food bank, menstrual stigma takes another hit. We are still a very long way from erasing squeamishness, disgust and ignorance about what is an essential human function. As it says on a T-shirt, "Anything you can do, I can do bleeding." In other words, silence and shame are on notice.

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An excerpt from the book Period. End of Sentence. by Anita Diamant with a foreword by Melissa Berton, Founder of The Pad Project © 2021 by Anita Diamant and Melissa Berton, published by Scribner on May 25, 2021

About the writer

Anita Diamant

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