Are tampons luxury items or essential goods? Utah measure revives debate.

An all male legislative committee in Utah voted down a measure that would have made purchases of feminine hygiene products exempt from sales tax. The debate over so-called tampon taxes has struck a chord both in the United States and abroad.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Utah Rep. Susan Duckworth (D) poses for a photograph at the Utah State Capitol Tuesday, in Salt Lake City. Utah is one of the latest states to consider making tampons and other feminine hygiene products tax-free, diving into an international debate on whether women are penalized for their biology.

Utah legislators voted to keep a sales tax on tampons and other feminine hygiene products Wednesday, despite growing support for similar "tampon bills."

As part of a larger international debate on eliminating taxes for feminine hygiene products, Utah Rep. Susan Duckworth (D) authored legislation that would have repealed the state’s tax classification of tampons as a "luxury good." But even before appearing before members of the taxation forum Wednesday evening, Representative Duckworth didn't hold out much hope. 

“I’m going into an all-male committee, and I just don’t believe they are going to have much sympathy,” Ms. Duckworth told the Associated Press. “The chances of it getting out of committee are probably not very good, but I’m not going to give up on it.” 

The committee struck down the measure in an 8-3 vote, saying the tax system should stay predictable. Duckworth says she will keep pushing for tax-free tampons because women in Utah pay about $30 a year in taxes for products that are health-related.

"Personal hygiene is a right," she said during the committee hearing. "We're entitled to this." 

Similar legislation is also up for review in California, Virginia, Ohio, and New York. 

In an interview with YouTube blogger Ingrid Nilsen last month, President Obama seems to be confused by the tax as well. 

“I have to tell ya, I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items. I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed,” Mr. Obama told Ms. Nilsen. “And I think its pretty sensible for women in those states that you just mentioned to work to get those taxes removed.” 

But because they are state taxes, and not federal taxes, Obama urged listeners to take up the issue with their state legislators and governors.

Of the 45 states that charge sales tax, all but five – Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and New Jersey – consider tampons and other feminine hygiene projects "luxury goods." 

Opponents of the practice point to what they see as questionable interpretations of what goods should be categorized as luxury versus essential items. For example, candy is considered a tax-exempt staple grocery item in 15 of these states. 

Some state legislators and pundits say outrage over the tampon tax is taken out of context: there is not an additional tax imposed on tampons specifically. Feminine products are simply subject to the same taxes of other everyday items like toilet paper and diapers. 

“Toilet paper attracts [Goods and services tax], and women use more toilet paper than men; shouldn’t toilet paper be exempt from GST? What about nappies, an essential item that’s far more expensive than tampons, the costs of which are borne exclusively by families with young children?” asks Australian Guardian columnist Eleanor Robertson. 

But state legislators have a clear reason to classify tampons as a luxury good, say opponents: they bring in a pretty penny. Almost every woman spends money on these products every month, for around 40 years. In other words, having a period is not a choice. 

If Utah repeals their tampon tax, Duckworth’s legislation would reduce Utah’s general fund by $1 million a year. On average, women pay $7 a month on tampons and sanitary napkins in California, contributing to $20 million a year in taxes. And while these 45 states rely on tampon tax for revenue, the pricetags add up for women struggling to get buy. 

“This is not insignificant to women, especially poor women on a tight budget who struggle to pay for basic necessities like a box of tampon or pads every month for their adult life,” Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D), who introduced legislation in California to eliminate the tampon tax, said in a statement. “Women have no choice but to buy these products, so the economic effect is only felt by women and women of color are particularly hard hit by this tax.” 

Other state legislators have proposed measures to help low-income women with hygiene costs. New York Rep. Grace Meng (D) introduced a bill that would allow women to pay for tampons and sanitary napkins with their tax-exempt, health care savings accounts. And in Wisconsin, Democratic Rep. Melissa Sargent proposed a bill that would supply all state buildings and publicly funded schools with free feminine hygiene products.  

Similar repeal efforts continue in Britain, Australia, and France, where feminine products are subject to the same taxes. But the Canadian government responded to public outcry, eliminating their "tampon tax" last May. 

“Finally, the government has listened to reason and put an end to this injustice. That is a victory for all women,” Canadian politician Irene Mathyssen, who introduced the legislation, said in a statement. “The women who made this an issue, their voices have finally been heard.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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