National Consumers League

The ‘tampon tax’: an unconstitutional loss to American consumers

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By NCL LifeSmarts intern Elaina Pevide

Bingo supplies in Missouri, tattoos in Georgia, cotton candy in Iowa, gun club membership in Wisconsin; what do these products and services have in common? They are all treated as tax-exempt by states that still put a tax on tampons.

Sales taxes on menstrual products, often referred to as “tampon taxes”, are still present in 35 states. Tampon taxes are cited as a major contributor to the “pink tax”, the heightened cost of products and services marketed toward women. For example, a purple can of sweet-smelling shaving cream for women will almost always cost more than its male counterpart across the aisle. This trend translates across industries. A 2015 study from the Joint Economic Committee found that women pay more 42 percent of the time for products from pink pens to dry cleaning. These pricier goods and services serve no benefit to the consumer and have no apparent improvement in function or quality. The pink tax cuts into women’s spending power and takes advantage of consumers simply on the basis of gender.

Tampon taxes and the pink tax have both been making waves recently as pressing feminist issues. While markups on products for women are unjust, activists are targeting the tampon tax as priority number one. Menstrual products, they argue, are necessities and states have the power to cut sales taxes on them by labeling them as such. States give tax exemptions to other items– like bingo supplies, tattoos, and cotton candy–that are far less vital to the health and success of consumers. Today, five states do not have sales taxes on any products, five states have always given hygiene products tax-exemption status, and five states have successfully fought to eliminate the tampon tax. Currently, 35 states remain with 32 having tried–and failed–to pass legislation on the matter.

States resistance to eliminate the tampon tax, typically for fiscal reasons, is at odds with the interests and demands of consumers. A survey of 2,000 women, conducted on behalf of menstrual cup company Intimina, found that three out of four women believe the tampon tax should be eradicated. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed interpreted taxes on feminine products as a form of sexism.

Countless advocacy organizations have been established out of the need to provide consumers with affordable menstrual products and eliminate the tampon tax. One such group, Period Equity, recently launched a campaign with reproductive care company LOLA called “Tax Free. Period.”. Their campaign calls for the remaining 35 states with a tampon tax to eliminate it by Tax Day 2020. In the meantime, they’re gearing up for a legal battle to challenge the states that refuse to comply. Their argument? Taxes on a product that affect only women and other individuals who menstruate is a form of discrimination and thereby unconstitutional.

As reproductive rights groups await the response of state legislatures and federal courts on this issue, the half of Americans that use menstrual products in their lifetime are suffering. Women make less in wages than men but are forced to spend more. The tampon taxes expound gender inequality and costs American consumers millions of dollars each year–dollars that could benefit their families and stimulate the economy elsewhere. Period Equity’s tagline says it best: “Periods are not luxuries. Period.” It’s about time for American tax policy to reflect that reality.

Elaina Pevide is a student at Brandeis University where she majors in Public Policy and Psychology with a minor in Economics. She expects to graduate in May of 2020.