The State of the Tampon Tax
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Period poverty is finally getting the attention it requires at all levels of government, thanks to the dedicated work of activists who just want to normalize menstruation in the public sphere. People that menstruate still face financial barriers accessing products because of the tampon tax and period poverty in the United States, and because it is often reliant on local initiatives, we wanted to check in on the state of the tampon tax - and see where we still need to keep pushing.
Remember: Period products aren’t a luxury, they’re a basic health necessity. Yet, menstrual products aren’t considered medical expenses. Menstruators spend $17,000 during their lifetime on pads, tampons, panty liners, pain medication, and underwear.
Many states subject people who menstruate to paying taxes on products needed to care for their monthly flow. InStyle estimates the average menstruating person will spend $100 to $225 in tampon taxes in their lifetime. This injustice creates a discriminatory economic burden that disproportionately affects low-income people who may struggle to afford monthly period products.
The so-called “tampon tax” is applied to all menstrual products—not just tampons. Those opposing the tampon tax believe it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by targeting a bodily function associated with women and non-binary people. The tampon tax only applies to people who menstruate and is sex-based discrimination.
In the U.S. there’s no federal tampon tax. It’s regulated at the state level and varies from one state to the next. It’s estimated that states collect around $125 million annually from the period tax. Thirty-two states have introduced measures to eliminate the tampon tax.
By 2020, Washington D.C. and 19 states had abolished the tampon tax. Connecticut, Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington ended taxation on period products. There’s no tampon tax in Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon since those states have no general sales tax.
A Senate bill making menstrual products tax-exempt in Vermont passed unanimously in March 2021, but now is in the House Ways and Means Committee. In Michigan, three women have filed a class-action lawsuit against the period tax which is six percent, a hefty additional fee for someone already struggling to pay $10 for a box of tampons.
California temporarily eliminated luxury taxes on menstrual products in 2020 effective until July 2023 when the budget will be reevaluated. Sales taxes on tampons, sanitary napkins, menstrual sponges, and menstrual cups were eliminated. It’s estimated that abolishing the tampon tax in California costs around $20 million a year.
In 2020, the Virginia Senate unanimously agreed to eliminate the tax, but it hasn't moved in the House. Nebraska Senator Megan Hunt introduced a tampon tax bill in 2019 that's been indefinitely postponed since August 2020.
Twenty-eight other states including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming still tax people to have access to period health care products.
The tampon tax perpetuates period poverty as economic conditions make it difficult for individuals to buy menstrual products. In 2019, Representative Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, introduced the Menstrual Equity for All Act to require schools and homeless shelters to use federal funding to provide free pads and tampons and Medicaid to cover period products. The bill died in Congress without a vote.
Menstrual equity aims at combating period poverty through public policy, product distribution, and raising awareness through period advocacy. The CARES Act coronavirus relief legislation expanded "qualified medical expenses" to include menstrual products allowing people to purchase them using health savings accounts, flexible spending accounts, or health reimbursement arrangements.
Some states now provide free period products in schools. In 2018 California and Illinois were the first to provide free period products in public schools and New York placed free period products in public schools. New Hampshire implemented a similar strategy in 2019 offering menstrual products in female and gender-neutral bathrooms and Georgia provided complimentary pads and tampons in low-income schools starting in 2020. Similar laws were passed in Delaware and Virginia but haven't been signed into law. Vermont’s miscellaneous education bill would require schools to provide menstrual products to students free of charge.
Minimal legislation exists to help menstruating adults access affordable or free period care products. Menstruating people can’t wait for politicians to dismantle period poverty. Organizations are creating hyper-local paradigm shifts. #Happy Period is a Black-led project donating to shelters, access centers, and schools aimed at ensuring anyone needing a period product receives it. The org is currently installing a vending machine that dispenses free period products in Compton, CA. The Latina-operated Chicago Period Project helps people in need experience their period with dignity by donating menstrual supplies. I Support the Girls Detroit provides period necessities to people in Southeastern Michigan.
It is unacceptable for anyone to go without menstrual dignity - it is a basic human right. We must keep working to ensure we have policy and laws in place to ensure everyone can work, learn, take care of their families, access supplies and enjoy their life - no matter what day of the month it is.
Lola Méndez is an Uruguayan-American freelance journalist. She writes about sustainability, travel, culture, and wellness for many print and digital publications such as CNN, ELLE, SELF, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, in addition to her responsible travel blog, MissFilatelista.com. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @LolaAnnaMendez.
Photo by Vulvani – www.vulvani.com