Time to end the tampon tax: Sales tax on feminine hygiene products unfairly penalize women

California lawmakers are trying to classify period supplies properly — as a necessity that should be tax-exempt

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 8, 2016 4:16PM (EST)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-1703182p1.html'>Daniela Staerk</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Daniela Staerk via Shutterstock)

If you are or know women, you know that menstruation is for most not an optional thing. Yet in the vast majority of states in the US, tampons and pads are subject to sales tax. Now, two members of California's state assembly are trying to change that.

As the New York Times reported earlier this week, most states exempt necessities — like food and prescription drugs — from sales tax. But the definition of "necessity" depends greatly on who you ask. In Cosmopolitan last fall, Prachi Gupta astutely noted that "Yes, in many states, there are even sales taxes on essential items like toilet paper and incontinence pads (some legislators are tackling that too). So no, there isn't some explicit anti-tampon conspiracy. But that should not detract from the argument for states to lift taxes from feminine hygiene products." And assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who announced the introduction of the California bill to exempt tampons and pads from sales tax earlier this week, said in a statement that "Women have no choice but to buy these products, so the economic effect is only felt by women and women of color are particularly hard hit by this tax. You can't just ignore your period, it's not like you can just ignore the constant flow."

But Joseph Henchman of the conservative think tank the Tax Foundation thinks otherwise, telling the New York Times that "It'd be nice if necessities weren’t taxed, but necessity is subjective." He argues that removing taxes from items like tampons drives up taxes on consumer goods, "worsening the budget crises that arise in recessions." And writing in the Ventura Star, Dan Walters, a person who likely has never had a period, muses, "One wonders how far we are willing to take the notion." He says that "Garcia decries 'being taxed for being women,' but all of us are being taxed for being humans and needing certain necessities of modern life. The electricity and natural gas that keep us alive and functioning are taxed, for example, as are the houses, apartments, trailers and other dwellings we occupy. Is a home any less a necessity than a tampon?" (And if you think it's contentious to suggest that feminine hygiene products not be taxed, you can imagine what happens when someone says they should be free. When writer Jessica Valenti did just that last year in the Guardian, making "the case for free tampons," she was met with a deluge of online abuse for "trying to score free tampons.")

It's inarguable that the judgments over what is subject to sales tax can seem arbitrary at best. As Gupta wrote in October, "Inedible gourds are subject to sales tax in Iowa," but pumpkins are not. The Times, meanwhile, notes that "The idea of exempting groceries from sales tax sounds simple enough, but most states want to continue collecting taxes on takeout and other prepared foods." And eliminating a sales tax creates a hole in any state budget. The Washington Post reports that in California, tax on sanitary products "adds up to more than $20 million annually." Similar measures to eliminate or reduce the so called "tampon tax" have been recently defeated in France and the UK. 

Sure, the money to keep a state financially afloat has got to come from somewhere — though Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and New Jersey (a small handful of other states that don't have sales tax) have figured it out. But while arguments over what makes something a necessity are open to debate, arguments over a fee that only affects one segment of the population are not. That's what makes the sales tax unfair. And that's a price women don't deserve to pay.

Watch our video explaining the "Tampon tax":

[jwplayer file="http://media.salon.com/2016/01/tampon-tax-final.mp4" image="http://media.salon.com/2016/01/shutterstock_258671018.jpg"][/jwplayer]

Woman Is Free Bleeding To Protest Tampon Tax

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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