If you’ve been listening to the news lately, the term “tampon tax” may have caught your ear. But what is it and why are people upset about it?
Simply put, the “tampon tax” is a catchy phrase for a piece of tax code. In most states, necessities like food and medical equipment are exempt from sales tax, while “luxury items” are not.
These terms are subjective, however, and sometimes applied in unexpected ways. The debate primarily centers around what qualifies as a “necessity.”
According to most state legislatures, tampons don’t meet the threshold. Only five states have eliminated taxes for feminine hygiene products. Tax codes are often complicated and full of quirks, but advocates argue that menstrual products deserve a proper place on the “necessities” list.
“Menstruation is an almost universal biological function among women of childbearing age, so it’s surprising that menstrual products could be seen as a luxury item,” says Dr. Toni Scott-Terry, an obstetrician on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. “While the cost of menstrual products may only total a few dollars a month, the cost over a lifetime – say, from the ages of 12 to 45 – adds up.”
With a push from advocates and lawmakers across the country, however, some states are considering taking action to reverse this. Cook County recently repealed their “tampon tax,” and the state of Illinois may follow suit later this spring. California and Washington D.C. are also considering it, and women in both New York and Ohio have filed lawsuits to try to get the state tax codes amended.
While the cost of menstrual products may not be a hardship for all women, the costs can disproportionately affect women living in poverty, or using shelter services.
“Women who come to shelters after fleeing domestic violence often come with few or no personal items and may be cut off from their finances,” says Vicki Meilach, community outreach coordinator at the South Suburban Family Shelter in Homewood, Ill. “No matter their living situation, menstrual products are a necessary purchase. Unfortunately, SNAP benefits in Illinois don’t cover personal care products at all. We supply as much as we can, but anything to make these and other necessities more affordable is helpful.”
Earlier this year, researchers from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that, on average, women pay 13 percent more for personal care products than men. In all but five of the 35 categories the researchers analyzed, women were charged more for products marketed as “for women.”
“It’s encouraging to see people taking action on these issues,” says Dr. Scott-Terry. “While things like the ‘tampon tax’ don’t necessarily have a large effect on the middle class, correcting it could benefit our most underserved populations and make needed health care products more accessible for all.”