In some respects, 2016 was a dismal year for women’s health and reproductive rights in the US: Congress voted to de-fund Planned Parenthood, Texas blocked Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds, and Indiana and Ohio passed two of the strictest abortion laws in the country. But there was one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy year: the tampon tax is officially a thing of the past in three states, and in 2017, it looks like at least five more states will follow suit.
Despite the name, the tampon tax doesn’t refer to a special, extra tax on menstrual supplies. It refers to the fact that, in many states, sales tax is applied to menstrual products because they’re considered a “luxury” item, not a medical necessity, says Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a writer and activist who partnered with Cosmopolitan in 2015 to launch the first ever Change.org petition urging the US to stop taxing periods.
Tax codes differ from state to state, but in Texas, for example, Ibuprofen and dietary supplements are exempt from sales tax. In Colorado, pregnancy tests are exempt. In most states, almost all grocery items are exempt. But in 2015, only 10 states didn’t tax menstrual products — five because they’re specifically exempt (Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland) and five because there’s no sales tax at all (Oregon, Montana, Alaska, New Hampshire, and Delaware).
Weiss-Wolf points out that the tampon tax hits poor women particularly hard. “People who oppose this campaign are quick to point out that there’s no special tax, it’s just that tampons aren’t exempt from it the way other medical necessities are,” she says. “But if you have a period, you need some kind of product to be able to participate equally in society.”
Weiss-Wolf points out that the tampon tax hits poor women particularly hard.
Happily, things are changing, and fast: NPR dubbed 2015 the “Year of the Period,” and Cosmo called it the year “the period went public.” Canada and the U.K. both got rid of their national tampon taxes in 2015, as well. According to Weiss-Wolf, 15 different states introduced legislation in 2016 to do away with the tampon tax, and three of them — New York, Connecticut, and Illinois — were successful at it. And so far in 2017, lawmakers in Texas, Virginia, Colorado, Florida, California, and Washington have either introduced bills to get rid of the tax or announced their intention to do so.
Weiss-Wolf attributes this quick success to a few things: for one, women have reclaimed the dialogue around menstruation both on social media with hashtags such as #periodsarenotaninsult and in real life (remember Kiran Gandhi, who ran the 2015 London Marathon while free-bleeding?). “We’ve done a tremendous service by putting menstruation front and center in a way that’s loud and proud,” Weiss-Wolf says. “I think everyone should be encouraged to talk about it.”
Framing the tampon tax as a tax issue rather than a solely reproductive one (though it’s arguably both) may have also helped the campaign garner bipartisan support, as the idea of saving taxpayers money is one of the few issues that Republicans and Democrats tend to agree on.
Currently, more than 35 states still tax menstrual products, and measures to ax the tax in California, Utah, and Indiana failed in 2016 (though California assemblywoman Cristina Garcia introduced two similar bills in December after Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the first one).
Weiss-Wolf and other activists will probably be playing defense for much of the next four years.
Weiss-Wolf and other activists will probably be playing defense for much of the next four years. Both President-elect Trump and VP-elect Mike Pence have been very public about their staunch opposition to abortion, and Trump has said several times that he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act (in fact, last week he called for its “immediate repeal,” according to the New York Times).
Still, menstruation is the “one place we’ve got the wind to our back” Weiss-Wolf says, adding that she hopes to next elevate the campaign to go beyond simply removing sales tax on menstrual products and push legislators to consider menstruation in the “broader policy arena, from environmental policies to workplace policies.” Some legislators are already doing that: last February, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced a measure called the Fund Essential Menstruation Products Act which would allow consumers to buy tampons, pads, and other feminine hygiene with money from a flexible spending account.
There’s no denying that the campaign against the tampon tax has been successful on an individual state basis, though the fight’s not over. “People like to argue that toilet paper isn’t tax exempt,” Weiss-Wolf says. “But why shouldn’t it be? We use it every day. But more importantly, there are a host of governmental regulations that make toilet paper more accessible to use than tampons — when was the last time you went into a restaurant or your office and had to pay for toilet paper?”