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Seattle needs to prioritize menstrual equity

City council considers removing tax on tampons

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Seattle city councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has proposed a budget evaluation due May 15, 2019 to investigate whether a sales tax exemption on menstrual products would be feasible. Councilmember Debora Juarez supported the proposal and requested that diapers be included in the evaluation.

 Currently, only nine states have abolished the tampon tax. A bill to ban the tax in Washington was put forth in 2016, but was not passed.

"We currently do not tax food; we know that food is necessary," Mosqueda stated at the city budget meeting in late October. However, menstrual products are taxed as luxuries are.

The concept of “menstrual equity” refers to the ideal of equal access to menstrual products. Barriers to equity include socioeconomic factors, lack of education on menstrual health, and institutional hurdles like sales tax.

Taxing menstrual products is an example of menstrual inequity. It is widely agreed that basic necessities such as food should not be taxed, and so the tampon tax promotes the idea that hygiene is not a necessity. However, a failure to keep proper menstrual hygiene can result in a myriad of health complications, ranging from toxic shock syndrome (TSS) to cervical cancer.

The average menstruating, tampon-using person will spend $1,773.33 on tampons in their lifetime. Considering the fact that the average woman in the United States makes $0.76 to a man’s dollar, the difference that the tampon tax makes starts to add up. While there isn’t a direct comparison that can be made between menstrual products and health necessities for non-menstruating people, a common question raised by advocates for menstrual equity is that of why Viagra is tax-exempt but tampons are not. While Viagra does serve an important function to people with erectile dysfunction, period hygiene products are a monthly health necessity for all menstruating people. By taxing the latter and not Viagra, men’s sexual pleasure is prioritized over the basic health of most women.

The problem of unfair consumer practices for women does not begin and end with menstrual products. The “pink tax” is a phenomenon that’s become increasingly visible in recent years. This refers to the fact that women pay more for many products, from household products to clothing. Often, the only difference in a product would be a change in color or packaging meant to appeal to women — hence, the tax on pink.

Brands market products for women differently than they do for men, in general. Commonplace products intended for women are often packaged differently, and the higher resulting price is justified by a perceived “gender fulfillment.” In other words, companies bet on the fact that a woman may feel more drawn to purchasing a pink razor, “designed for a woman’s curve,” over an otherwise identical black one, because they feel catered to. However, a pressure to purchase items specialized for one’s gender is socialized and often created by brands.

The marketing of “stigma products,” such as menstrual products, to women is even more specialized.

“Tampons, for example, are a taboo product,” UW marketing professor Dr. Nidhi Agrawal said. “We don’t sit there and have a casual conversation about tampons or our periods.”

Therefore, tampons are marketed in odd ways. Rather than talking explicitly about the anatomical uses for these products, they’re advertised in generic ways, such as associating athletic lifestyles with their products. This even manifests in their placement in stores. “Tampons, for example, may be placed in a section of the store where men aren’t,” Agrawal said.

This hesitancy to discuss their products outright even by menstrual hygiene brands further discourages women from discussing their periods, contributing to the problem of menstrual inequity.

Removing the sales tax on menstrual products is a step toward taking basic health necessities out of the marketplace. In recent years, several nonprofits have been founded with menstrual equity, especially for homeless populations as their mission, including Period., which added a UW chapter last spring. This group runs campaigns for the cause, including its most recent quarterly product drive, which resulted in 92 period packages to be donated to Mary’s Place.

Period. advocates for free, accessible tampons provided by UW administration in public school bathrooms.

“Stigmatization and unfair judgment around periods can be really debilitating for people, especially when you’re younger and going through public school,” Period. chapter president Lexi Little said. “You can get really anxious and this prevents you from doing well in school … People have been socialized to have a bad attitude toward it."

Period. is firmly against the tampon tax, with a quarter of all financial donations to the greater organization going toward advocacy for the tax’s repeal across the nation.

There are many issues standing in the way of menstrual equity, and the sales tax is a primary one of them. Especially in the city with the second highest rate of community members experiencing homelessness in the nation, we should be trying to remove hurdles to basic health anyway we can. Exempting these products from sales tax is a symbolic action to promote that menstruation health is a priority for our population, and that hygiene is a basic human right.

Reach Special Sections editor Alyson Podesta at Twitter: @alyson_podesta

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(1) comment


I agree, the tampon tax is unjust and state tax laws should be modified to exempt menstrual products. Please contact your state representatives. They have the authority to create the exemption.

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