By Danielle Bernstein
Don’t worry about paying sales tax the next time you go to CVS to pick up a prescription, buy some condoms, or stock up on sunscreen. These items are exempt from sales tax because they are considered medical necessities that are “intended for use, internally or externally, in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of illnesses or diseases in human beings.” But go to CVS to pick up a package of tampons? Time to pay up.
Under the current tax code tampons and pads are not medical necessities, instead they are classified as items “used to maintain cleanliness.” This designation places tampons and pads in the same category as cosmetics like lipstick and shampoo. Interestingly, dandruff shampoo made the cut for a “necessity” and is not taxed.
Any woman who has ever had to ask a stranger for an emergency tampon in the bathroom (and most of us have) knows this designation is incorrect. Tampons and pads are not luxury items. As one woman put it, “[They are] one of the most important things for a woman to have available.” And insofar as there is a spectrum of “necessity,” tampons are certainly more necessary that treating someone’s flaky scalp. Menstruation is not a choice, but rather a normal function of human bodies, and deserves recognition as such. Tampons and pads should be exempt from sales tax just like other medical necessities.
Sales tax is a state issue, where each state sets its own sales tax rates and exemptions. And to be sure, tampons and pads are not subjected to an additional tax. Rather, “feminine products,” including tampons and pads, are often excluded from a state’s list list of medical necessities. There are ten states that exempt tampons and pads from sales tax, but this number drops to only five when you consider that five states have no state sales tax at all. Nationwide, female lawmakers are fighting to bring attention to this important women’s health issue and update their respective states’ tax codes.
Last year, New York State assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal introduced A07555 (S6726) to amend paragraph 3 of subdivision (a) of section 1115 of the New York tax code. This amendment would specifically exclude “feminine hygiene products, including, but not limited to, sanitary napkins and tampons” from the list of cosmetics subject to sales tax. Critics of the bill argue exempting tampons and sanitary pads will increase taxes on other products to make up for lost revenue. Critics also argue that this will cause other groups to lobby for additional exemptions, which is why the tax code is riddled with quirky exceptions in the first place. (Did you know live circus performances are exempt from sales tax?) These arguments miss the mark.
Let’s take a hypothetical female resident of Ithaca. A box of 36 tampons costs around $7 at Wegman’s. Assuming she uses one box per cycle she will spend roughly $84 on tampons per year. Over roughly 40 years of periods this number totals more than $3,300. At a sales tax rate of 8% (4% New York State, and 4% Tompkins County), this woman will pay almost $270 in sales taxes that Ithaca males do not have to pay. Of course, this number is subject to inflation and will vary with each woman’s actual needs. Still, this estimate does not even take into account other arguably necessary feminine products, like liners or wipes. So while it is true that New York will lose tax revenue by exempting another item, is $270 really too high a price to pay for gender equality? I think not.
Importantly, this money makes a difference particularly at the margins for women who depend on assistance programs like SNAP, which does not cover the cost of tampons or pads. Assemblywoman Rosenthal called the tax “a regressive tax on women and their bodies,” which motivated her to introduce the bill. In fact, even President Obama said in an interview “there’s no reason this tax exists other than men made the law when those taxes were passed.”
Menstruation is not something men are eager to talk about. One advocate said, “The message to women has been: ‘Menstruation is your problem, ladies…[y]our problem is to render it invisible.” But feminism is not about putting down men; it is about gender equality and promoting women’s rights. Several men have voiced support for this change in the Code, for example, Senator Joe Robach of the 56th Senate District said, “…this care product should never have been taxed in the first place as it is a medical hygiene necessity.” Senator Robach is one of three male co-sponsors of the bill. Similarly, the National Coalition For Men, a nonprofit organization, offered written support of a comparable bill in California in January.
New York must join Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in recognizing that tampons and pads are medical necessities and deserve a spot amongst other sales tax exemptions. Female lawmakers are taking the initiative not only to correct this gender bias, but also to send the message that women should not be ashamed of their bodies. This is a citizen’s movement, and women need to demand equality.
A change.org campaign to end the taxing of tampons and pads has already gained over 57,000 signatures. But as law students and feminists we can do more. We must push the NY Legislature to pass A07555 and lead the remaining 40 states, and the District of Columbia, to classify tampons and pads as medical necessities.