The ‘Tampon Tax’ Outrage Is Overblown

Mainstream feminism is going after the ‘tampon tax,’ which is nothing more than a sales tax that, in most states, applies to tampons.

10.22.15 5:00 AM ET

Cosmopolitan magazine wants the United States to stop taxing tampons. So does Gloria Steinem.

Prompted by an op-ed from Cosmo writer Prachi Gupta and a subsequent petition co-sponsored by the magazine itself which demands that U.S. legislators “Stop Taxing our Periods,” the so-called “tampon tax” has become the mainstream feminist issue du jour. On Twitter, Cosmo is lobbying hard over the tax, asking readers to tell the government that they’ve “had enough.”

The demand to end the “tampon tax” in the U.S. comes hot on the heels of similar efforts in Canada, where the tax was ended in July, and in the U.K., Australia, and France, where the pertinent taxes are still in place despite recent public outcry. Last week, France voted down a measure to reduce value-added tax (VAT) on feminine hygiene products, causing French feminists to, in their words, “see red.”

But the “tampon tax” isn’t really a tampon tax in the United States—it is sales tax that, in most states, applies to tampons. And although the case can certainly be made that feminine hygiene products should be exempt from sales tax, presenting the issue as an obvious and pressing instance of discrimination is a little misleading given the bizarre nuances of state tax codes.

“[A] relief of the tampon tax would send a clear, top-down message that society needs to reevaluate how we treat women,” Gupta writes, as if the “tampon tax” battle should be at the vanguard of feminist activism.

But that “top-down” message might not be so clear in an effort that would realistically require 40 separate statewide campaigns to sort out all of the weird inconsistencies in their respective sales tax codes, motivated by the promise of—as Gupta concedes—“pennies on the dollar.”

In June of this year, Fusion reported on the 40 states that “tax women for having periods,” as the headline pointedly put it. But as Gupta notes partway through her Cosmo op-ed, “in many states, there are even sales taxes on essential items like toilet paper and incontinence pads.” In light of this fact, she acknowledges that there isn’t “some explicit anti-tampon conspiracy” and yet the Cosmo petition, like Fusion’s headline, frames the “tampon tax” issue as if state lawmakers were directly targeting menstruation.

“[A]cross the U.S., a whopping 40 states increase the financial burden of menstruation by charging sales tax on these essential items,” the petition reads.

To be extra clear, there is no additional tax imposed on tampons but they are not exempt from most states’ sales taxes. The overall effect—women are taxed more for buying sanitary products that men don’t need—may be the same but this distinction is important when calculating a political response, especially because the sales taxes that make tampons more costly often apply to other necessary personal health-care products as well.

In New York, for example, the state’s tax code for drugstores and pharmacies (PDF) notes that feminine hygiene products are “generally subject to sales tax” because they are “used to control a normal bodily function and to maintain personal cleanliness.” Also taxed in New York state are soap, toothpaste, and toilet paper—all items required to “maintain personal cleanliness,” albeit not in as gendered of a fashion.

By contrast, however, the handful of states that do let tampon-users off the hook often have exemptions for several other personal hygiene products, not just those of the feminine variety.

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In addition to the five U.S. states that do not charge a state-level sales tax, five states—Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—have exempted feminine hygiene products from their sales taxes.

Not coincidentally, two of these states—New Jersey and Pennsylvania—are the only two in the country that also specifically exempt toilet paper. The Pennsylvania tax code, for example, exempts “disposable diapers, incontinence products, [and] toilet paper” right alongside feminine hygiene products. Among other products, New Jersey exempts toilet paper, diapers, acne cream, and even medicated lip balm from its sales tax.

The other three “tampon tax” holdouts permit a wide range of hygienic products beyond the menstrual realm to be bought tax-free. Massachusetts exempts “health care items” including tampons, diapers, and hearing aids. Minnesota’s health product exemptions (PDF) cover kidney dialysis equipment, breast pumps, and wheelchair lifts as well as tampons and sanitary napkins. For Maryland, the list of exemptions includes baby oil and baby powder.

Tampons are never singled out for exemption. The distinction here seems to be between states that tax a certain degree of essential hygiene products, and those that don’t.

States outside of the “tampon tax” holdouts, by contrast, often tax items that no human could do without. Florida taxes toilet paper, causing one Sun Sentinel columnist to personally campaign for an exemption for the last two years. His lone petition drew a mere 89 supporters. This May, New York lawmakers announced that they, too, would try to tackle the state’s aforementioned taxes on tampons and toilet paper.

In fact, all but seven states tax toilet paper—when states without sales taxes are factored in—but “toilet paper tax” outrage doesn’t garner nearly as much social media momentum as “tampon tax” petitions do, and perhaps rightly so.

But if the logic behind fighting the “tampon tax” is that people shouldn’t be taxed for any items that are “a necessity,” as Cosmo’s petition puts it, then targeting tampons alone is too narrow of a goal. If, on the other hand, the argument is that any hygienic items used exclusively by one gender should be exempt from sales tax, that’s a different campaign altogether, and one that would require some complicated reconfiguring of tax codes, even in the states that exempt tampons: Massachusetts taxes pregnancy tests, New Jersey taxes breast pumps, New York taxes vaginal creams, the list goes on.

In her Cosmo article, Gupta does acknowledge in passing that “state tax codes are notoriously complicated,” but the devil is in those details. The more time one spends digging through boring state tax codes, the blurrier the “taxing our periods” narrative becomes. That doesn’t mean that tampons shouldn’t be exempt from sales tax but it does show that what feminist critics call the “tampon tax” is sometimes less targeted than is suggested.

Take, for example, the 10 states identified by Money this year that do not exempt tampons from sales tax but do exempt soda or candy. Ridiculous, right? That shocking juxtaposition has been used by second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem to plug Cosmo’s petition. But the crucial clarification here is that many states exempt groceries from sales tax and a subset of these states consider soda and candy to be groceries (PDF).

The problem, then, is not necessarily a patriarchal privileging of candy over feminine hygiene but a refusal to see tampons, toilet paper, and other personal hygiene products as being comparable to food in terms of necessity. That’s less of a feminist issue, specifically, and more of a public health issue with a feminist bent.

In countries where the “tampon tax” debate has progressed further than it has in the United States, these complications have come to light.

In Australia, Guardian columnist Eleanor Robertson responded to her country’s “tampon tax” controversy by observing that the goods and services tax (GST) also applies to other necessities that are disproportionately required by some groups and not others: “Toilet paper attracts GST, and women use more toilet paper than men; shouldn’t toilet paper be exempt from GST? What about nappies, an essential item that’s far more expensive than tampons, the costs of which are borne exclusively by families with young children?”

Feminist energies, Robertson argued, would be better spent making menstrual supplies more accessible to homeless women rather than “zooming in on the tampon tax.”

Canada, which eliminated taxes on feminine hygiene products this summer after a petition acquired almost 75,000 signatures, still taxes toilet paper and toothpaste.

And in the U.K., where the VAT on feminine hygiene products was reduced from 20 to 5 percent in 2000, there are now renewed demands to eliminate it altogether, with a petition addressed to David Cameron’s government sitting at nearly a quarter of a million signatures. But as the BBC reported in February, the 5 percent VAT isn’t specific to tampons. Also taxed at 5 percent are mobility aids for the elderly, children’s car seats, and nicotine patches. Still at 20 percent: toilet paper, of course.

It’s true that 100 percent of the population requires toilet paper while a particular half of it also requires feminine hygiene products—an unassailable foundation for feminist advocacy. When it comes to personal hygiene products, however, state tax codes are often messy, inconsistent, and strange. There is certainly some mystifying and, yes, potentially sexist decision-making involved in how these exemptions are determined.

But this is not a state-sanctioned war on periods, even if it the “tampon tax” ultimately proves to be worth fighting.