How We Can Take Down the Tampon Tax and End Period Poverty

As of April 1, Ohio is the latest state to stop charging a "tampon tax"—but the state of period poverty across the United States remains dire.

[Photo: An illustration of a variety of menstrual products in the background. In the foreground the word 'TAX' is scratched out in red.]
The tampon tax isn't a tax specifically added to menstrual products. Rather, it's the regular sales tax applied to menstrual products when the state fails to exempt them by categorizing the products as necessities, or non-luxury goods. Shutterstock

Sitting at home on a Saturday morning recently, I got a surprise visit from my period. Unprepared, I asked my father to run to the drugstore for me. He did, and I continued my day as usual.

Unfortunately, for millions around the world, getting their period every month is not so uneventful.

At any given moment, 800 million people around the world are on their periods, and many of them cannot afford period products. In the United States, 1 in 5 teenagers have struggled to afford period products, and 1 in 4 have missed class because they did not have access to period products.

What they are facing is period poverty, or limited access to menstrual products due to a lack of income and resources.

What are the real-life implications of these statistics? The reality is that people around the world are pushed into isolation by missing out on their education or work. And many of them are at risk of infection while using unhygienic alternatives like toilet paper, newspaper, cardboard, or socks instead of pads or tampons.

Along with social isolation and health risks, there’s an economic impact. A person will spend anywhere from $400 to over $2,000 on period products in their lifetime, according to some calculations. And while many already can’t afford this expense, period poverty is exacerbated by the “tampon tax.”

The tampon tax isn’t a tax specifically added to menstrual products. Rather, it’s the regular sales tax applied to menstrual products when the state fails to exempt them by categorizing the products as necessities, or non-luxury goods. Currently, 31 states tax items like pads and tampons, vital products that people who menstruate need. The annual tax revenue that states collect on the sale of these products, based on the number of menstruating people in the state, ranges from $1 million in Utah to $20 million in California.

If period products aren’t a necessity, then what is? In Kentucky, Pixy Stix candies are considered a tax-exempt food item. In Alabama, sausage casings are tax-free. Yet both these states tax menstrual products.

Some lawmakers think that making period products tax-free will lead to out-of-control menstrual shopping sprees.

Fortunately, lawmakers in many states are pushing for tampon taxes to be eradicated, and some have already succeeded. Eight states—Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, and now Ohio—have eliminated the sales tax on period products. California has a temporary tax exemption that only lasts from 2020 through 2022. (In some states, menstrual products were already tax exempt, while others don’t have a sales tax at all.)

As of today, Ohio became the latest state to stop charging a tampon tax. State Rep. Niraj Antani (R-Miamisburg), a sponsor of the bill, called the tax repeal a victory for women. “Ohio’s taxes must be applied evenhandedly to everyone and with the repeal of this tax, women have moved one step closer to being treated more equitably under the law,” Antani said in a statement in October. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed the bill into law in November to go into effect on April 1. Ohio women are expected to save nearly $4 million a year in sales taxes paid on these products, according to the office of State Rep. Brigid Kelly (D-Cincinnatti), another sponsor of the bill.

The coronavirus stimulus package passed last week will provide some relief, thanks to a provision allowing people with health savings accounts or flexible spending accounts for health-care expenses to use those pretax funds to purchase menstrual products. But health-savings accounts are an employee benefit only some people in the United States are eligible for; the new rules won’t help people without an account, people who lack health insurance, and the young people whose education is affected by period poverty.

Wherever you are in the world, whether you have a period or not, period poverty affects everyone. When people don’t have access to the proper hygiene and care items, there are social and economic implications for everyone. Menstrual equity is gender equity is racial equity is human equity.

Taking down the tampon tax will help alleviate the financial burden of menstruation, advance gender and economic equity in the United States, and challenge policymakers to accommodate the needs of some of our most vulnerable populations.

Here are a few ways that you can take action against period poverty and the tampon tax:

  • See if your state has a tampon tax.
  • Sign the pledge on taxfreeperiod.com to show your support for removing the tampon tax.
  • Donate to nonprofit organizations that help fight period poverty and are committed to taking down the tampon tax, like #HappyPeriod & PERIOD.
  • Get involved with local projects (like Hate the Dot, the company I founded in Brooklyn) to fight menstrual inequity in your community.
  • Donate unused period products to local homeless and domestic violence shelters.
  • Talk about periods, and break the stigma around menstruation.