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Against the Flow: A Closer Look at the Tampon Tax

News & Features | February 21, 2017

At any given point in time around 334 million people around the world are on their period. However, the complex biological process of menstruation is heavily stigmatized. This stigma has manifested itself in the US tax system by way of the tampon tax: the sales tax imposed on menstrual products. Student groups at Tufts, such as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) and TCU Senate, are pushing against the tampon tax and fighting for greater access to tampons and pads on campus.

“Tampon tax” can be a misnomer. The issue is not that tampons specifically are being taxed. The problem is that menstrual hygiene products are not exempt from the sales tax in 38 states. Exemptions from the tax include items that states deem as necessary like food, prescription medication, and agricultural supplies. In essence, the tax code (and, by extension, most states) views menstrual hygiene as a luxury instead of a necessity. So, the natural process of menstruation becomes a taxable and profitable.

Currently, only Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, and Minnesota exempt tampons, pads, and menstrual cups from the sales tax. A few states are introducing bills to exempt tampons and pads from the sales tax.

Supporters of the tampon tax argue that menstrual hygiene products should be categorized alongside other hygiene products such as razors and makeup. Still, the alternative to hygiene products is bleeding without a form of protection. While free bleeding isn’t medically dangerous, it clearly lacks practicality for those who cannot wash out bloodstains. Interim Director of the Women’s Center, Bryn Gravitt affirmed this sentiment.

“Menstrual products are necessity items for some folks, and there shouldn’t be a tax on them. While menstruating is an everyday reality that many, many people have to deal with and pay for, those in legislative positions may not have had to worry about this and/or are privileged in ways that allow them to choose the method that they conceal their bleeding,” Gravitt said.

Junior Miranda Perez, an undergraduate intern at the Women’s Center, agreed, stating, “To me, it’s clear that menstrual products are necessity items. I think it is more than a hygiene or a ‘cosmetic’ thing, and that it is a literal health [and] livelihood thing.” It is clear that menstrual hygiene products may not be lifesaving, but they are a necessity to most.

At Tufts, student organizations are working to combat the tampon tax in their own ways. At the beginning of 2016, TCU Senate introduced a resolution to provide free pads and tampons on campus. Senator Walae Hayek, a junior, spearheaded the initiative. Hayek said she started the project because “menstruation is not something we can control and as a university advocating for health and wellbeing for its students… it is very important to make sure that all these needs are accommodated when necessary.”

Hayek also discussed the previous inconsistency in Tufts’ reproductive and sexual health accessibility. While condoms had always been free at Health Services, tampons and pads were only available for purchase in bathrooms and the bookstore. Hayek explained, “It makes sense, that, like we give condoms as a health initiative, we should [also] give free pads and tampons as a health initiative because, unlike sex that is non-urgent, periods are and require attention immediately.”

However, these free tampons and pads are only available at select locations. The funding Hayek was able to secure could only fund a consistent supply in five locations. She chose locations with the most foot traffic: Tisch, the gym, Dewick, Carmichael, and the Campus Center. With the inclusion of the Women’s Center and the LBGT Center, which fund and provide their own set of free tampons and pads, there are only seven places on campus where these menstrual hygiene products are free.

As of now, the initiative does not include men’s restrooms and gender-neutral bathrooms due to budget and staffing constraints. However, it does speak to the greater issues at hand when it comes to discussing reproductive rights—the movement is not inclusive.

Although Hayek hopes “to expand the project to include men’s restrooms and Gender Neutral restrooms as well,” menstruating students who do not use women’s restrooms do not have access to the tampons.

Similar programs at other colleges have gained popularity as well. Students at Brown University have access to free pads and tampons across campus in all bathrooms, regardless of gender labels. However, not all programs have been as successful. Columbia University launched a pilot program at the beginning of 2016, but ended the program after one semester due to a lack of interest, resulting in an overstock of pads and tampons.

The larger movement that fuels most of these initiatives, the reproductive rights movement, can be exclusionary. Senior Samantha Berg, president of Tufts Students for NARAL discussed how the name itself is exclusive.  Berg stated, “I think the term ‘reproductive rights’ suggests that these concerns are solely rooted in reproduction—versus comprehensive health—thus excluding people who are not cisgender or heterosexual.” This mindset has certainly played out on Tufts’ campus and continues to be an issue. Berg and her fellow NARAL members are working to create a bill that will “ensure that Tufts students have access to the care they need and deserve.” Since the landscape of healthcare in the US is becoming increasingly inconsistent, this bill could prove important in securing proper resources and healthcare for Tufts students. While NARAL is still researching what Tufts offers and what they need to include in their bill, it will be written with the help of some TCU Senators in the coming weeks.
Although organizations like Tufts Students for NARAL and initiatives like Senate’s menstrual hygiene project work to defend women’s rights, there is more work to be done.

“I am happy that the TCU Senate is providing free tampons and pads in restrooms at Tufts. The Women’s Center and LGBT Center both provide these items for folks, but it would be great if there were products available in the all-gender bathrooms on campus,” Gravitt said.