It's bad enough that many women have to dole out money for tampons or pads every month — but most states tax menstrual products on top of that. While the majority of the 45 states with sales tax exclude necessary items like groceries, prescription drugs, and clothes, tampons and pads don't fall under that category, despite half the population needing them for about 40 years of their life. Sure, sales tax on a box of tampons is a pretty small amount of money, but it certainly adds up each month, financially penalizing people who have periods for a biological function. To see just how much it adds up to, I did some math to figure out exactly what the period tax is costing you.
Alaska, Oregon, Montana, New Hampshire, and Delaware don't have sales tax at all, so tampons just cost what they cost. Only five states — Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts — have made conscious decisions to not tax tampons, meaning people who menstruate pay tax on these products in 40 states. Because every state and city has different sales tax ranging from state averages of 4.4 to 9.5 percent, the money the government receives every time you have a period differs slightly from other women across the country.
Here's how the math breaks down — about 70 percent of people with periods use tampons, and a box of 36 tampons costs $8.19 at Walgreens. It's recommended that you change out your tampon every four to eight hours, and if you do so every six hours throughout a five-day period, you'll use a total of 20 tampons each month and 240 every year (that's a lot of tampons). This means the average woman will buy seven boxes of tampons in a year totaling $57.33.
Based on that average, Americans pay between $2.49 and $5.41 each year in tampon taxes. That may not seem like a lot, but considering the average person menstruates for 38 years, that adds up to between $94.62 and $205.58 just in period taxes throughout your life.
The national average is $152.20 over 38 years — not a tiny chunk of change. With the highest sales tax in the country, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Washington are the worst offenders, all collecting close to or more than $200 from a tampon buyer over the course of their reproductive life.
Class-action lawsuits surrounding the period tax were filed in New York, California, and Ohio in the past two months, challenging the constitutionality of a policy that discriminates against women. The New York suit sites the fact that items like foot powder, face wash, and Viagra aren't taxed in the state, while products necessary for the normal bodily function of menstruating are, estimating that New York women collectively pay $14 million in period sales tax in a year.
"I don’t think it’s a malicious tax but at the same time, it is discriminatory because for women, or trans men, or gender non-conforming people who menstruate, it's a tax on them," says Margo Seibert, a plaintiff in the New York lawsuit and co-founder of Racket, a nonprofit collecting menstrual products for the homeless.
It's not like pads and tampons are a luxury item — they're a legitimate requirement for people who menstruate to stay clean and healthy, and the tax creates an additional burden for poor and homeless women already struggling to buy the products they need. "For many people in our society, these products are expensive and cost more of their monthly budget than seems practical," says Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president for development at the Brennan Center for Justice and part of the New York class-action lawsuit. When you're struggling to buy food or pay rent, every penny counts and unnecessary taxes only make matters worse.
"It's so difficult to be in a position where your life is very up in the air and very transient, and even this necessity seems out of reach," Seibert tells Bustle.
The good news is that 14 states introduced legislation to end the period tax this year (only two of which have been killed so far), and big cities are grappling with the issue as well — Chicago eradicated its tax on tampons and pads in March, and Washington, D.C. is considering doing the same. New York is also well on its way to tax equality, passing a measure to stop taxing menstrual products in April that is now waiting to be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who previously voiced his support.
Recognizing the problem and starting a dialogue is always the first step toward progress. Weiss-Wolf thinks the nation is moving in the right direction, but she'll continue to fight for women's right to accessible menstrual products.
"Not having access to these products, if you want them, need them, require them, it's harmful to people’s dignity... and it’s unhealthy," Weiss-Wolf says. "The reverse is true too... it's healthy to acknowledge this is a bodily need for half the population. Why would we pretend this doesn’t exist?"
Images: Dawn Foster/Bustle (1)