Most women, at one time or another, have found themselves without a tampon or pad at a critical moment.
For many, it’s a moment of bad luck or bad planning, an inconvenience that will be solved by a quick trip to the drug store.
But for some women, it’s a chronic problem and one not so easily solved.
They might be prisoners lacking the commissary money, girls in school dreading a trip to the nurse’s office, or simply women whose low salaries make the cost of monthly supplies a difficult burden.
But is it a burden the government has a responsibility to ease?
That’s the center of the debate around the so-called “tampon tax,” an issue that has generated a lot of attention and some legislative reform in recent months.
“For anyone who has a period, these items are a necessity — not an option, not a luxury item — and should be treated as such,” wrote the founders of a change.org petition demanding the repeal of the tax. “Eliminating the Tampon Tax is simply the FAIR and EQUAL thing to do.”
The petition, put forth by the activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine, has generated more than 60,000 signatures. It has garnered widespread support, coming from the likes of Gloria Steinem and President Obama.
But critics say the language of these impassioned appeals is a bit misleading.
“Maybe this makes me a traitor to my sex, but I support the tampon tax. Mostly because it’s not actually a tampon tax,” wrote the Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell.
Why some products are taxed
The tax is the same sales tax that most states apply to most products — not a special tax on tampons specifically, and not a tax that categorizes tampons as a luxury.
States began implementing sales taxes in the 1930s as a way to generate much-needed revenue during the Great Depression.
Since the tax originated in this piecemeal, disparate way, the nation as a whole has never quite defined its philosophy about what should and should not be taxed.
Some states, like California, have exempted items they deem “essential,” such as groceries and prescription drugs. Such exemptions are typically meant to ease financial strain for people with low incomes.
Advocates for repealing the tampon tax argue that tampons should be included in the “essential” category. In fact, the California State Assembly passed a bill this week that would make the products exempt.
But for the most part, states tax all goods unless a special effort is made to exempt something.
This effort typically comes in the form of lobbying on behalf of industry.
Candy is exempt from taxes in certain states because the National Confectioners Association has lobbied for and won these exemptions.
So, in a way, the anti-tampon tax movement is just another lobbying effort to make a certain product tax-free. And like many of these efforts, it has been successful in some states.
Last month, New York became the sixth state to lift taxes on tampons and other feminine hygiene products.
The campaign for free tampons
Another issue is whether tampons should be free in some institutions.
Last week, New York City officials voted to make the items freely available in jails, homeless shelters, and public schools.
The move is meant to alleviate some of the indignity suffered by female prisoners who are denied appropriate supplies and forced to bleed into their clothing, as described in The Guardian by a former Connecticut inmate, and fictionalized in the popular Netflix show “Orange is the New Black.“
By also making these products freely available in schools, the legislation intends to keep girls’ education from being unduly interrupted by their periods.
“We can’t be horrified that in Africa, say, girls don’t go to school because they don’t have supplies, and start charities, and don’t pay attention to the fact that the same thing happens in our own schools,” Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder of the women’s blog site BlogHer, told Healthline.
The issue is even larger than access to supplies, said Saideh Browne, president of the National Council of Women of the United States (NCWUS). It’s about opening up a conversation around reproductive health.
“The powers that be, whoever they are, they don’t want to face the reality of having these difficult conversations with young girls,” she told Healthline. “Once you open that door now comes question number 4, now comes question number 7.”
She says NCWUS hopes to partner with schools, providing girls with information as well as pads and tampons.
Selling tampons online
At least one company is taking advantage of the uproar over the tampon tax by selling the products online, tax-free.
RedCycle describes itself as a tampon club, delivering the items to subscribers’ doors once a month.
Its founder, Ashlee Wilson Hawn, says she was shocked to learn that tampons are taxed in most states. She chose to start a business rather than petition the government for change.
“In 40 states in our glorious union, women pay a monthly tax on their period just for buying tampons and pads,” the company’s website reads. “When you get started with RedCycle you are joining the fight.”
The company also pledges to donate a bag of tampons to homeless women for every bag sold.
“I think that as women have progressed to more places of power and legislation we’re going to see more changes on things like this,” Hawn told Healthline.
Tampon access is an issue that “slipped through the cracks” when governments were run mostly by men, she says.
“When more women come into power we’re going to see more of these things that have slipped through the cracks,” Hawn said.