The "Tampon Tax"

What's happening?

This week’s most controversial issue is unexpected: tampons.


In the 45 states with sales tax (up to 10%), items that are considered “necessities” are not taxed. For example, New York state cites medicines, condoms, newspapers, and even wine as tax-exempt necessities—but not tampons. The distinction has become a point of tension nationwide.


For example, Chicago recently removed its tax on tampons and other feminine hygiene products. However, the city controls only its 1.25% tax, not the full state tax of 10.25%. Illinois and California are considering similar legislation which, if passed, would make them the 6th and 7th states to remove this tax. The others are: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts.

Why is it important?

First, taxing tampons amounts to a surprisingly significant amount of money. A woman spends on average $7 per month for 40 years of her life on feminine hygiene products. Combined state numbers are hard to come by, but in California taxing tampons adds over $20 million annually—though admittedly to a $100 billion state budget.


Second and more importantly, the issue highlights two overarching questions: what products do we tax, and how do we decide?

Debate it!

Should tampons be tax-exempt?

Anti-tax: Ruby

Pro-tax: Thea

Thea studies history and economics at Columbia, works in politics, uses tampons, enjoys every cultural iteration of the dumpling. She finds it annoying when others play Devil’s Advocate but likes to play it herself from time to time. Say hi @theangreyjoy.


If we were to roll back the definition of “necessity” to be something without which we would not be physically able to live, the number tax-exempt products would be slashed dramatically. While food from vending machines, commemorative pins and garment alterations (all tax-exempt “necessities” in the state of California) would not be included in our more stringent new definition, sanitary products wouldn’t either. 


Further, the more products that are tax-exempt, the higher regular sales taxes need to be in order to offset them. Making tampons also tax-exempt may be a special Band-Aid on the larger problem of the inordinate influence of special interest groups on now-incomprehensible state tax codes.


Finally, the argument that lower income women need a tax exemption for sanitary products presents an economically inefficient way to allocate goods, because millionaires will also get the benefit of the exemption. A better way to get free or cheaper sanitary products to lower income women would be to include them in SNAP or Medicaid

Ruby lives in D.C., works in journalism, and is a regular tampon user who would like to save some money. She ate tacos for four meals in a row this week and enjoys arguing with Thea. Say hi @rubymellen.


Today in most US states, a woman spends extra tax dollars on her monthly period, which she can’t control, while the medicine she takes or the chocolate she craves often come tax-free. To tax tampons is to suggest they are an optional purchase. But women have been using some form of tampon or sanitary napkin long before the emergence of other seemingly “necessary” commodities. 


In fact, the way states have approached certain tax exempt products shows that the existence of a tampon tax is evident of an oversight in what constitutes “necessity” for women, rather than the product of a thoughtfully drawn conclusion. States tax tampons more often than they tax candy or soda. The list becomes even more frivolous. In New York state, for example, dry-cleaning and race horses are commodities offered tax free, while tampons are not.


Finally, lifting the tax on tampons is a way of alleviating the cost of at least one feminine product, since this country charges women more than men for the same products,  while simultaneously paying them smaller salaries, discriminating against them in professional spaces, and requesting they live up to a singular standard of beauty.

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