I stopped at my local CVS and picked up 2 things: mixed nuts, and a box of tampons. The nuts were 8 dollars and 29 cents. No tax. The tampons were 8 dollars and 79 cents. 62 cents in tax.
So what myself and many other Rhode Islanders are wondering is, why are menstrual hygiene products taxed?
“If you’re a woman over the course of your lifetime, you’re paying between $400 and several thousand dollars in taxes on feminine hygiene and menstrual products, and that’s a lot of money in taxes. And this is on top of the money you spend on these products. So for half the population, this has real financial impacts on our lives,” said Meghan Kallman.
Kallman is a fellow at the Women’s Policy Institute and a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University. Kallman says that even though people may not notice the tax coming from menstrual hygiene products when they go through their receipts, it certainly is adding up.
The Huffington Post predicts that the average woman spends over $1,700 in their lifetime on tampons. And that’s without the tax, which Kallman predicts adds up to between 500 and several thousand dollars over the course of a lifetime.
“We tallied up over the course of your lifetime what you could do with the money you were saving on this, and over the course of your lifetime, if you save on average $500 in these taxes you could pay for almost a semester of classes at (the Community College of Rhode Island), you could put a down payment on a used car, you could pay for electricity for a family of 4 for a couple of months, right, this is grocery money. So this is real money that we’re talking about,” said Kallman.
Tampons and other similar hygiene products can come at a high price tag for women throughout their lifetimes, because they are taxed as luxury items in Rhode Island. Along with luxury items like ski boots and wigs, tampons are taxed at 7%.
Earlier this in the year, Kallman and a colleague approached Rhode Island Representative Edith Ajello and asked her to propose legislation that would end the tax on menstrual hygiene products.
“This bill got a really nice and warm reception, pretty much from everybody. A lot of lawmakers sort of said, thanks for bringing this to our attention, we’d never heard of it. We had a lot of people sort of laughing out loud when we said hey you know, tampons are taxed as luxuries … So it didn’t really meet any opposition, I think people were really surprised to learn that tampons and pads are not understood as necessities,” said Kallman.
Kallman says one reason people might have been surprised is that people, including herself, just don’t talk about periods that often.
“The first time I went to testify on this bill I said, ‘having a period isn’t a luxury.’ And everyone in the room kind of snickered. But they all agreed with me right? It’s just talking about periods isn’t something that we do that frequently.
Another favorite moment in this process was one of our coalition partners had come to testify on this bill and she started talking and she sort of stumbled over her introductory sentence, and so she said to the House Finance Committee, ‘I come before you today as a menstruating citizen.’ And we all laughed and you know, it’s an appropriate thing to say.”
“She is a menstruating citizen and she has a concern about how she is being taxed for a condition she can’t control. So we’ve had some fun with it honestly, but the way around stigma is humor and that’s certainly worked in our case,” said Kallman.
Tax free items are usually necessities, like food and diapers. But some tax free items don’t really contribute to basic health needs, like hockey equipment, or individual articles of clothing up to $250. Some men’s healthcare products, like Viagra, also bear tax free status.
A Rhode Island student Lucy Xu also feels frustrated about the tax.
“It’s bull shit. It seems a little ridiculous to have a tax on something that half of the population has a use for and needs every month.”
And this tax hits low-income women especially hard, because they can’t use food stamps to buy tampons and other feminine hygiene products.
“We heard stories of people who use toilet paper. Toilet paper is unhygienic for one and it’s also kind of a pain in the neck. And you know, it’s not designed to be used as a hygiene product, and people are doing that because they can’t afford the alternative. And we can help with that, state tax law can help with that,” said Kallman.
The bill to repeal the tax on tampons and other single use hygiene products was introduced to the General Assembly in April, four months into the 6 month legislative session. When the General Assembly broke for recess in June, the bill was still going through the legislative process. That means that the tax still remains for now.
“It was the first year, the budget was tight again this year. Many bills are tabled or held for further study every year. I wasn’t terribly surprised that it didn’t make it into the budget this year,” said Representative Ajello.
Right now, the state of Rhode Island is making just under one million dollars annually from taxes on menstrual hygiene products.
The proposed law to remove the tampon tax suggests starting to tax clothing at $240 per item rather than $250. This will make up for lost revenue on menstrual hygiene products. Ajello says Governor Gina Raimondo could also make up for this loss by adding the lost revenue to next year’s budget.
And the movement to remove the tampon tax has been growing recently. In 2015 Canada removed the tax entirely. Recently, states like California and New York have removed the tax, and over 10 other states have introduced legislation or amendments to get rid of the tax.
Here in Rhode island, Representative Ajello announced this month that she is ready to reintroduce legislation to remove the tax in January, when the General Assembly starts again. Ajello says introducing the legislation earlier in the session will increase the chance of the bill being passed. Kallman will also be there, continuing to work to get the tax removed, with a bit more experience this year.
“It takes a little bit of practice to be able to go to the State House and talk about your period,” said Kallman.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Kallman’s position at Brown University.