What do Viagra, the San Diego Aerospace Museum, leases on television film tapes, and candy have in common? They are all exempt from California’s sales tax, based on the March 2018 “Sale and Use Taxes: Exemptions & Exclusions” document from the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration. Museums are considered a “general public good” while candy and Viagra are categorized as “necessities of life.” These exemptions are for “provisions that exempt property necessary to the sustenance of life.” About half of the human population for about half of their lives menstruate and need these products, but California has not recognized them as “necessities of life,” and they are not exempt from the sales tax.
The sales tax, aka luxury tax, of menstrual products in the U.S. and around the world has been coined as the “tampon tax.” In 2016 Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) led Assembly Bill 1561 to eliminate sales tax, across California, on menstrual products. It passed unanimously in the State Senate and Assembly, but at the last step it was vetoed by former governor Jerry Brown. His response was that California needed the $20 million in revenue. Nancy McFadden, Brown’s executive secretary at the time, claimed the issue’s failure was one of bad timing; it should have been addressed during state budget deliberations.
Currently five states have no sales tax: Oregon, Alaska, Montana, New Hampshire, and Delaware. Nine states have specifically exempted sales tax on menstrual products: Minnesota, Illinois, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey; four of these states only made the change within the past couple of years. This year, Assemblymember Garcia has introduced a new bill AB 31to eliminate sales tax on all menstrual products from state and local taxes. It is essentially identical to the AB 1561 bill and has large support with 25 co-authors from the state Assembly and 11 from the Senate.
The tampon tax is the only tax of its kind that is gender specific, and it’s discriminatory toward women and other menstruating people. This gendered pricing targets populations already suffering from gender pay inequalities, only adding more insult to injury. The California sales tax rates range from 7.25 percent to 10.50 percent. And it can be even more burdensome to afford them if you are low-income, woman of color, a transgender person, or non-binary folk. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, when stratified by race/ethnicity, women make anywhere from 53 cents to 85 cents to a white man’s dollar.
Menstrual products are also not covered by food stamps, leaving many to hold off purchasing menstrual products when on their period and risking their menstrual health. This discriminatory tax makes it harder for people to afford basic necessities and perpetuates discriminatory views on the needs of women and other menstruating people by treating a normal bodily function as some optional luxury we’ve chosen.
On average, periods last from three to seven days from ages 13 to 51, cumulatively 2,280 days or 6.25 years of bleeding uncontrollably. Based on costs of the cheapest pads and tampons, one could spend up to $2,000 in their lifetime. This price easily increases if buying better quality and chemical-free products. This doesn’t include other costs of pain medications, heating pads, replacing stained underwear, birth control, and more, many of which are monthly expenses. When combining all potential expenses, lifetime costs climb to over $18,000.
Those with endometriosis can suffer longer, heavier, more frequent periods with other health complications and are burdened with an extra $2,801 of health-care costs on average in the U.S. It is common to take a sick day for period pain. If one were to take one unpaid sick day per year, it’s at least $7,000 of productivity loss over a lifetime.
There has already been progressive efforts in California to improve conditions for menstruating people. In 2017, governor Jerry Brown signed the AB10 bill, also led by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, that requires Title 1 schools for low-income students to provide free menstrual products in at least half of campus bathrooms for sixth graders and up. The bill also had overwhelming bipartisan support in the state Assembly and Senate. This shows that there is not only a need to eliminate inequalities for menstruating people but that Californian politicians support such causes. If male bodies menstruated, a tax would have never occurred in the first place. Men would probably get a bonus for showing up to work during their period and get a separate paid sick leave.
Periods are a natural bodily function with medical necessities, and California needs to abolish this discriminatory tax. I urge you to support the new bill AB 31 to stop this discriminatory tax. Call your local representatives saying they should vote in favor of the bill and get it back onto the governor’s desk. And Governor Gavin Newsom — don’t veto it. Abolish the tampon tax once and for all. Period.
Makeda Negash-Alemnesh is a Santa Barbara native pursuing a Master’s in Public Health degree at Boston University.