Stop Taxing Our Tampons!

A friend of mine who owns an upmarket grocery store recently asked me if it was true that chocolate Hobnobs were taxable and plain ones were not. For those of you that don’t know, a Hobnob is a particular type of British biscuit (which is what the UK calls a cookie – just nod and Google it later).

I explained to my friend that, in practice, this was the case, as chocolate-covered biscuits were standard-rated for Value Added Tax (VAT) as they were deemed by the UK tax authorities as a “luxury”, whereas plain biscuits were zero-rated for VAT, as they were deemed some kind of essential.

This distinction seems to the layman an arbitrary one, and the validity of what is deemed a luxury and what is not was recently thrown into the spotlight, when MPs in the UK government voted against an amendment to the Finance Bill which would have removed VAT on female sanitary products.

This tax is referred to by many as the “Tampon Tax”, and by others, such as Labour MP Paula Sherriff, more stridently as the “V*gina Added Tax”. 

The problem dates all the way back to the 1970s, when the UK first joined the European Economic Community. Under the existing tax system, zero-rating applied to certain items that the UK government had decided were basic, essential or “healthy”. 

Somewhat bizarrely, tampons and sanitary towels weren’t deemed to fall into any of these categories, although there is clearly a strong case for them to be included in all of them. Even more bizarrely, items such as lottery tickets and ostrich meat ARE zero-rated, which says a lot about the opinions of those in the government at the time (and possibly now).

On joining the EEC, the UK was allowed to keep on applying those zero rates that already existed. However, no new zero rates could be introduced, and any attempt to do so unilaterally would put the UK in breach of EU law.

Therefore, since tampons and their like were not on the UK’s original 1970s list of exemptions, the way the law stands right now, they cannot be zero-rated. 

Supporters of the “tampon tax” point out that the 5% rate applied is already at the lowest possible rate of VAT under EU rules, and that in some ways it's a positive thing, since tampon manufacturers can currently recover the VAT of some associated costs of production eg advertising costs. They say that if tampons became an exempt supply, the retail cost could go up as a result of being unable to recover VAT. 

Considering how expensive zero-rated children’s shoes and clothes are (£30 for a pair of tiny leather plimsolls!), this is certainly a possibility. However, I daresay that this is one of those cases where the principle is the thing, and the mere fact that we are being taxed on such items is an outrage. 

Apart from anything else, the tampon tax is a discriminatory tax, as it affects only women. Despite a number of attempts on social media, no one has been able to come up with a valid example of a male-only tax (suggestions have included “trousers”, “engagement rings”, “Clearasil”, and “jockstraps”).

It’s not just the UK suffering from these unreconstructed 1970s sentiments - the tampon tax is applied in other countries too. The average levy across the EU is 17% and Hungary imposes an eye-watering 27% rate on tampons and sanitary towels.

Change can happen though - until recently, the Canadian government applied GST at a rate of 10% to sanitary items, but in July of this year, they finally lifted the tax in response to public pressure and this was greeted with much public acclaim. This move was heralded by New Democratic Party (NDP) politician Irene Mathyssen as “a victory for all women” – a victory partly achieved by a petition with over 74,000 signatories.

In the UK, a similar petition asking the UK government to “stop taxing periods” has attracted over 250,000 signatories – ie more than three times the number in Canada. 

But the UK government has simply raised its hands in the air and said that because of EU law, reducing the rate on tampons would need a European Commission proposal and the agreement of all 28 member states.

A spokeswoman for the government said:

The Government sympathises with the issue here and understands the concerns that are being expressed … What is being proposed today is not something that, having looked at, we think is achievable."

The Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans seems more hopeful about scrapping the tampon tax, and said:

In the light of the VAT reforms we are looking at, it's perfectly reasonable for Britain ask for an exemption and I'm sure others will do the same.

When it was decided before, Britain did not ask for an exemption, whereas Ireland did and do have leverage to charge 0% VAT on certain items”. 

But until such EU-wide VAT reforms are made, it seems that we women must just accept that, as far as the UK is concerned, having the means to stop ourselves bleeding all over the carpet once a month remains a luxury rather than an essential.

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by MiMi Aye, Managing Editor, Bloomberg BNA