Sales Tax Slice: Are Tampon Exemptions Essential to Gender Equality?

Feminine Hygiene Products

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. As U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres earlier this week observed, gender equality is “essential to fully functioning communities, societies and economies.” Among the many avenues available to advance gender equality, sales tax may seem an unlikely battleground. Nonetheless, over the past couple of years, equality advocates have created something of a cause célèbre around exempting tampons and other feminine hygiene products from sales tax.

These efforts have been successful in several states. Tampons and other feminine hygiene products are currently exempt from tax in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Connecticut’s feminine hygiene product exemption takes effect on July 1 of next year. 

A number of other states have rejected similar exemptions over the past year, however. For instance, in September Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed a bill that would have exempted tampons and diapers in the Golden State. In doing so, the governor explained that these exemptions, which would have the same effect on state funds as new spending, should have been introduced during budget deliberations. Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D), who drafted the bill, responded that the governor was “propping up the state budget on the backs of women.” According to Garcia’s website, removing the tax on tampons is one “step towards gender equity.” 

A bill that would have exempted feminine hygiene products, diapers and incontinence items was likewise defeated in Utah’s House Revenue and Taxation Committee last year. According to Committee Chairman Dan McCay (R), this result was consistent with the committee’s ongoing efforts to rein in sales tax exemptions.  

His statement highlights the tension underlying the “tampon tax” debate between narrow tax exemptions and the principle of neutrality in taxation. Proponents of neutrality oppose tax laws that favor certain economic activities over others. Among the reasons for favoring tax systems that are broad-based and neutral, their simplicity makes for easier compliance. In addition, according to the Brookings Institution, “[i]n many cases a spending program can be more effectively targeted and delivered to serve” a particular policy objective than a tax carveout.   

With this in mind, it is worth considering whether reducing the economic burden of feminine hygiene products on women might be better achieved outside of the tax law. As one organization advocates, while tampon exemptions may help to alleviate this burden, the only way to completely eliminate this inequity would be to make feminine hygiene products free. This idea has been gaining traction in certain state and local legislatures and government agencies as well.  

Should sales tax exemptions be used as a means to achieve social policy goals? Continue the discussion on Bloomberg BNA’s State Tax Group on LinkedIn

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