As of November 2019, 33 states tax menstrual hygiene products as “non-essential goods,” whereas other hygiene products are generally granted tax exemptions due to their necessity. The sales tax imposed on period products is commonly referred to as the “tampon tax,” and it applies to all menstrual hygiene products, such as pads, tampons and other items. It is not an additional tax levied on these items, but the tampon tax can still pose an undue financial burden that discriminates against people who menstruate. The controversy surrounding the tampon tax can be understood by what is not taxed at the same rate as period products. These items are considered basic necessities and thus qualify for tax exemptions: condoms, lip balm, sunscreen, and Band-Aids are just a few that are not subject to sales tax .
Saving a few dollars every couple of months on menstrual products may not seem like a meaningful portion of one’s income. However, poverty disproportionately harms women, and more specifically, women who menstruate. Sales tax is already a regressive tax– a rate that takes a larger proportion of lower incomes than higher incomes. Thus, imposing it on such essential items as menstrual products amounts to discrimination not just on the basis of sex, but on socioeconomic status as well. A study by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that 2 out of 3 low-income women cannot afford period products at least once a year . This is apparent for low-income menstruators because federal assistance programs such as SNAP (commonly referred to as food stamps) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) cannot be used to purchase menstrual products.
The origins of the tampon tax are nebulous. It was likely an oversight of an all-male state legislature when each state’s tax code was first crafted. It has now evolved into an enduring provision that has solidified the tax on menstrual products as the status quo for policymakers . In the state of Georgia, reasons ranging from revenue earned to cultural stigma can explain the enduring taxation on period products. The Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts estimates that the state receives 9 million dollars of annual revenue from the tax imposed on period products. This money accounts for a mere .03% of the yearly fiscal budget .
The disproportionately low percentage of female lawmakers in the Georgia General Assembly (30.5%) ensures that the voices of menstruators regarding issues of period product access are overpowered by those who do not menstruate . Studies have shown that women in political bodies prioritize issues of direct consequence to women: Democratic women sponsor bills related to women’s health at twice the rate of men in the party . Additionally, the socially constructed discomfort of such topics as periods in public spaces exacerbates menstrual inequity by creating an inurgency in addressing, or worse, a conscious effort to work against, menstrual equity in political spheres.
Recently, attempts have been made in Georgia to remove the tampon tax completely. The 2019 legislative session saw the introduction of House Bill 8 by State House Representative Debbie Buckner (District 137), which would grant tax exemptions to all widely used menstrual products. The bill only made it to Second Reading, a step automatically taken after a bill is introduced in the Georgia House .
Georgia lags well behind other states in the repeal of the tampon tax. New Jersey repealed its tampon tax in 2005, and an academic study supported what many thought to be true: the tax break benefitted lower-income menstruators . In 2016, New York State passed a bill to exempt period products from sales tax after a lawsuit was filed that likened pads, tampons, and other menstrual hygiene products to bandages, gauze, and dressings (which are exempt from tax) by arguing that both act to stop blood flow.
While service-based organizations dedicated to providing low-income menstruators with period products are commendable, they provide only a short term solution. If donating menstrual products to those in need is not accompanied by policy change, then lower-income menstruators will forever be reliant on charitable organizations to supply a necessity. To effect institutional and cultural change, legislative action must be taken to repeal the “non-essential” status of period products. Fourteen states have accomplished that. As the discourse surrounding periods begins to change from one that shames and marginalizes menstruation to one that accepts it as a biological process, more states may pass legislation that classifies menstrual products as what they are: necessary medical devices.
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Written by: Jaaie Varshney