Recently, during a live interview with YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen, President Obama was asked why 40 states impose a sales tax on tampons and sanitary pads. His telling, if not slightly awkward, response: “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws.”
President Obama confessed that prior to the question he was unaware of the fact that most states don’t exempt tampons and pads from sales tax or otherwise classify them as a necessity. But other global leaders, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls among them, have been engulfed in an ongoing battle over the “tampon tax”—the EU’s Value Added Tax classifies tampons as “non-essential luxury items”—as raucous floor debates, failed votes, and viral protests have unfolded in recent months. The economics of menstruation began making international headlines last summer when Canada succeeded in eliminating its national Goods and Services Tax on menstrual products.
In the United States, too, activists are calling out the clueless sales tax. Generally, states exempt food and other necessities, such as medicine and prescription drugs, but not menstrual products, from sales tax. A change.org petition to US state legislators, Stop Taxing Our Periods. Period. (which I launched, together with Cosmopolitan magazine), has amassed more than 43,000 signatures. In January, California Assemblymembers Cristina Garcia and Ling Ling Chang introduced the first tampon-tax bill of the 2016 legislative session, with notable bipartisan support. California collects over $20 million annually in sales taxes on tampons and pads. Women across the country pay upward of $70–100 per year on these products—and low-income women who can’t afford to buy in bulk often pay a premium for emergency, convenience-shop purchases—which amounts to more than $3,000 over a lifetime of menstruating years.