Mar. 08 2016

Activists Say: Stop Taxing My Period

Mailman Faculty Weigh in on the Fight to End the Tampon Tax

There’s increasing evidence that life is more expensive for women. In 2010, Consumer Reports found that women can pay up to 50 percent more for pain relievers, antiperspirants, and other consumer products than men, and late last year a study in New York City found women pay more for products across the board, with personal care items marked up on average 13 percent more than similar products designed for men.

There is another way women pay more: tampons, pads, and other sanitary products cost thousands of dollars over a lifetime. And in 40 states, this cost goes beyond the retail price, with the sales tax added onto feminine hygiene products—something a growing number of critics say is fundamentally unfair to women.

Activists rallying against what they call the Tampon Tax argue that women, already disadvantaged by the wage gap, are being taxed on necessary items for which there are no male equivalent. Moreover, most states do not collect sales tax on items considered essential to life, such as prescription medication or food purchased for preparing and eating at home.
map of states with tampon taxesAccording to Tal Gross, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management, the Tampon Tax amounts to a kind of poll tax on women, issued without regard to income or resources. While economic theory suggests poll taxes are an efficient way for states to collect revenue, efficiency often comes at the expense of equity.

“Economic theory isn't the only tool we use to make tax decisions,” says Gross. “Equity matters, too. So why not on this?”

Critics of the Tampon Tax point to many unessential items that states choose to make tax-free. In New York State, Rogaine is free from taxation. In California, the same holds true for pizza rolls. Residents of South Carolina, Florida and Rhode Island pay no sales tax on sweetgrass baskets, ice cream, and country club memberships, respectively.

Unlike these true luxury goods, however, a tax on a necessity like tampons disproportionately burdens those with the least income.

As you move down the economic spectrum, each dollar taxed represents a larger proportion of a person’s overall income. In California, for instance, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia estimates that a woman spends $7 each month on sanitary items—the same as one or more days of food. But unlike edible grocery items, tampons and pads are not supplemented by government assistance programs, such as SNAP.

Activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf became aware of the issue when she saw two teenagers in her town of Maplewood, NJ, running a collection drive for their local food bank. In addition to food items, they were also collecting tampons and pads for local women in need who might otherwise resort to using rags or nothing at all.

“I had this light bulb moment that I think a lot of people have when reading about this issue,” she says. “It’s like ‘wow, how did I never think about this before?’”

Galvanized by the encounter, Weiss-Wolf wrote the first of a three part series on the issue in January of last year for the New York Times. By October, she was co-sponsoring a petition with Cosmopolitan Magazine to end the tax. “The petition has helped us catapult the issue into the national dialogue, which was always the goal,” she says.

Since then, the discussion has made its way to the White House and across the United States. Earlier this year, a few days after President Obama's State of the Union address, YouTube celebrity Ingrid Nilsen questioned him about the tax. Meanwhile, legislators in five states (California, Virginia, Michigan, Utah, and Wisconsin) have raised new bills to make sanitary items tax-free. Two more states, Connecticut and New York, have reintroduced exemption legislation with bipartisan support.

The suggested repeal in Utah has already been rejected by an all male committee, but in New York, bills to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products proposed by State Senator Sue Serino and Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal are still under consideration.

Associate Professor of Sociomedical Sciences Marni Sommer has experience breaking down barriers to feminine hygiene and demystifying menstruation abroad. In November of last year, in partnership with UNICEF, she convened for the fourth year, an annual virtual conference on menstrual hygiene management in schools with the goal of improving schoolgirls’ experiences of managing menstruation in low resource contexts around the world.

The Tampon Tax is not limited to the United States–both Australia and the UK, among other countries, tax pads and tampons. For Sommer, the lingering question is fairness: “Why are women being taxed on something that is uniquely female?”