Tax Analysts Blog

Tampons, Viagra, and Other Important Tax Issues

Posted on Mar 30, 2016

The first time the issue of the "tampon tax" came up, I stuck my fingers in my ears and started singing la la la. I come from a generation that does not talk about such things in polite company. Actually, men didn't talk about such things in any company. I joked in a previous column that I am uncomfortable talking about such things. And I am.

But in the past several weeks, I have been called by a dozen reporters and four legislators asking me what I thought about the tampon tax. The reporters all asked the following question: Is it fair to tax feminine hygiene products while similar products for men are exempt from tax. Already bored, I asked for examples. The response was Viagra (although I must admit a few used the term "erectile dysfunction medicine"). People of my generation don't talk about Viagra or erectile dysfunction either. Such issues are between you and, well, someone else. One of the legislators used condoms as an example of "men's needs" that weren't taxed. We don't talk about those either.

In the hope of putting all of this to bed, I decided to share my thoughts. Most states subject feminine hygiene products to the general sales tax. Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Massachusetts do not. There are proposals that would eliminate the tax on these products in New York, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, and likely many other states.

The question is whether feminine hygiene products are necessities. You would think there is much more to it, given the general press attention, but there isn't. So who cares? The vibe in the press is that this is a women's rights issue. Personally, I think there are much bigger issues facing women than whether tampons are taxed. More interestingly, I have had more than one person tell me that this is a conspiracy by the manufacturers of feminine hygiene products. They are posing as feminists to get their products exempt from tax. I will have to check with some of my lobbying friends to see if that ever happens.

In any event, feminine hygiene products should not be exempt from sales tax. Nothing should be exempt from sales tax. Good tax policy dictates a broad tax base -- tax everything -- and low rates. You can't have the latter without the former. So they should be taxed as they are. But we exempt so-called necessities because we try to alleviate the injustice of consumption taxes. The tax is regressive, and exempting things we need to buy at least provides some modest relief to the poor. Personally, I do not like exemptions for necessities. They narrow the base, complicate administration and compliance, distort markets, and often cost a lot of money. Besides, they are heavy-handed ways of providing relief to the poor since the rich benefit as well.

Viagra is exempt in every state not because old men use it, but because it is a prescribed medicine. Every state exempts prescription medicine. The thinking is that if a doctor says you need it, it is a necessity. And in response to several inquiries, I do not think condoms are exempt from sales tax anywhere (except in the states with no sales tax). Condoms do not meet any of the definitions of necessity in the statutes.

The taxation of tampons is not part of a misogynistic conspiracy. It is actually good tax policy. But if society determines that feminine hygiene products are necessities, by all means end the tampon tax. And for the record, I'm still uncomfortable talking about it.

A version of this post appeared in State Tax Notes.

 

Read Comments (1)

Ashley MillerFeb 26, 2017

First off, thank you David for writing such an informative piece regarding sales tax. I agree that the sales taxes exception of necessities is perhaps an archaic piece of legislation that perhaps Congress should revisit, especially given the nations growing deficit. However, I couldn't help but be distracted by your biased language regarding women's health. I'm sorry that the topic is so unpleasing to your delicate disposition, but the menstrual cycle is something that affects half the world's population. That's why I urge you to not consider this a feminist issue (perhaps that's what makes you uncomfortable), but as a civil rights issue. Just like it was never just about water foutines, this issue is not about the tampons, not really. It's the principle behind this decision that sanitary napkins and tampons are not condsidered a necessity though THEY ARE necessary every month for females anywhere between the ages of 12 to 50. It follows a trend of disenfranchisement against women, espcially since they still make .72 cents to every dollar a man makes, as well as the rollback against planned parenthood and other women's health resources. Perhaps we should also remember who decided sanitary napkins were not necessities (male legislatures). So please, consider your audience in your future analyses. Some readers might take your words to mean that women should be shamed for menstration when it is something that (as much as we rather opt out of) just can't be avoided.

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