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Tennessee Republicans worry women will go on tampon-buying frenzy


Women can’t be trusted around tax-free tampons. If you cut the price of menstrual products they’re bound to go tampon-mad and buy boxes of the stuff, just for the hell of it. They’d line their walls with super-plus, they’d polish their floors with pads; it would be absolute bedlam.

That appears to be what Republicans in Tennessee think, anyway. On Tuesday GOP lawmakers pushed back against a proposal that would include sanitary products in Tennessee’s annual sales-tax holiday. The three-day event, held at the end of July, allows shoppers to buy items like computers and clothing without paying the usual 7% state sales tax.

Related: Access to menstrual health and hygiene is a right. Period. | Elizabeth Payne

“I would think since it’s a sales tax holiday, there’s really no limit on the number of items anybody can purchase,” said Joey Hensley, the Republican senator, during a debate on the bill. “I don’t know how you would limit the number of items someone could purchase.”

Hensely’s legislative assistant later explained that his questions were prompted by concerns “that the possibility of people purchasing large quantities had not been factored in when determining the cost of the legislation”. One would not want Tennessee to be bankrupted by residents bulk-buying tampons, after all.

Menstrual products are a necessity, not a luxury; and yet, across America and around the world, they’re still largely taxed as the latter. Products such as Viagra and Rogaine, however, are not subject to sales tax in America because they’re considered medically necessary. Why is this the case? As President Obama joked back in 2016, “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”

The annual tax revenue from menstrual products is not insignificant, ranging from around $1m in Utah to $20m in California. This is money a lot of states don’t want to lose; after all they might then have to make the funds up via drastic measures like taxing billionaires a little more. In 2016, Jerry Brown, the Democratic governor of California at the time, vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have exempted menstrual products from sales tax, saying it would cost the state too much in lost revenue. Brown also shot down similar bills which would have ended certain state taxes for diapers.

Over the last few years there’s been increased global activism and awareness around the so-called tampon tax, and some progress has been made. Between 2016 and 2018, five US states (Nevada, New York, Florida, Connecticut and Illinois) got rid of the tax, and at least 22 states introduced bills to repeal the tax last year. California also suspended the tax in a law that went into effect on January 1, though the exemption, which also includes diapers, expires in 2022. As it stands, a tampon tax is still in place across 33 states.

In 2004, Kenya became the first country in the world to end a value-added sales tax on menstrual products. Thanks to pressure from female parliamentarians, the nation has since implemented a number of progressive period policies. In 2010 it allocated almost $4m to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls.

Canada, India, Australia, Malaysia, and Germany have all jettisoned the tampon tax in the past few years, following pressure from activists. The UK still has a 5% tax (down from an original 20%), but in 2015 set up a tampon tax fund and pledged that the money raised would be spent on women’s charities.

Scrapping sales tax on menstrual products and treating them like the necessities they are is an important step towards period equity. But even without sales tax, the items are still expensive and many women struggle to afford them. Last year a survey of low-income women in St Louis, Missouri, found nearly two-thirds couldn’t afford menstrual hygiene products during the previous year, and one in five struggled to buy the products every month. Meanwhile, just across the border in Tennessee, we’ve got Republicans worrying women might abuse the system by splurging on tax-free tampons.