Tampon Tax: Sexism in the American Tax Code

Tax reform policy is always a hot button issue during Presidential campaigns. This election cycle is no different. Couple this with a new awareness of gender equality issues (think of the recent uproar over transgender access to public restrooms in North Carolina), and it’s no surprise that sales tax on tampons is generating its share of protests and headlines.  Leading the charge on the state level are California Assembly members Cristina Garcia and Ling Ling Chang, who recently authored legislation to eliminate the tax on tampons. Tampons and related products, which the USFDA has deemed medically necessary, are taxed in the Golden State, while prescriptions, including Viagra, are not. 

Internationally, the #notaxontampons movement has yielded results recently. UK government officials announced in March that they were able to reach an agreement with European Union leaders and will soon abandon the tampon tax altogether. Last July, Canada axed a 5% levy on menstrual-cycle sanitary products for women. Within the United States, only Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts do not currently tax feminine hygiene products (Four other states have no sales tax at all). 

The U.S. tax code is wildly confusing to experts and laymen alike. Across the fifty states, tampons and other feminine hygiene products are generally subject to goods and services tax, which is imposed state by state. However, exemptions are typically made for “necessities” like food and medical purchases.

Proponents of removing the tax on tampons argue mainly that taxing tampons is an issue of gender inequality. Since tampons are not specified as a necessity by tax codes, they fall under the de facto label of “luxury goods.”  This concept of a tampon as a luxury good is simply insulting to women. Activists argue that the fact that erectile dysfunction drugs are sometimes tax free, or, as in the case of Wisconsin, actually subsidized, but tampons are taxed, reflects the disheartening fact that most state legislatures remain male-dominated.  In fact, women on average compose only 24% of state legislatures.  Not surprisingly, most men are uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss menstruation openly.  

A parallel anti-tampon tax argument is that the tampon tax disproportionately affects impoverished women.  According to the office of California’s Garcia, tampons can cost women in California approximately $7 per month, a sum that adds up over the course of a lifetime, and is inflated by the sales tax.  The tax is especially difficult for low-income women to pay in the face of gender pay gaps, which continue to persist across the nation.  Since the tax on feminine hygiene products is a flat tax, it is also by nature a regressive tax—a tax that disproportionately impacts low-income people. 

Despite the rising popularity of the anti-tampon tax opinion, many people continue to voice the contentious opinion that the current tax should be maintained.  Seeing as the tampon tax only costs women a few dollars a year, the tax has limited financial impact.  Although the state taxes tampons, it is not responsible for the total cost of feminine hygiene-related expenses.   The accumulated revenue from the tampon tax in California alone is $20 million per year. The bottom line is that state-levied sales taxes are inconsistent. If tampons are technically considered “necessary health products,” how are soap and toilet paper—two products that are not tax exempt—any different?  The tax system is riddled with arbitrary rules and inconsistencies, and exempting tampons may simply add another. "I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items,” said President Obama in a YouTube interview in January. “I suspect it's because men were making the laws when these were passed.”

The removal of the tampon tax will not solve the larger problem, the problem that women may be unfairly treated by the wider U.S. tax system. Ideally, this tax on tampons would be reversed in a symbolic step toward a more open monologue about female menstruation, improved gender equality, and helping impoverished women across the country. Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to flaws in the U.S. tax code and the inequitable treatment of women.  A removal of the tampon tax would be more of a symbolic step than an effective one, but hopefully this issue encourages legislators to take more substantial action to improve gender equality in the eyes of the law. Let’s just not ask Donald Trump about it.