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 (6)

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.

Jennifer NeillOct 3, 2017

Thank you, this is great

Daniella May 4, 2017

Hi David. I came across your article and though I like how you outlined your logic, it seems you are uncomfortable, as you don't fail to mention, talking about anything that implies sex. While manners are appropriate at the dinner table or in church, it's unsettling that a grown man has such trouble discussing a tax policy concerning tampons, especially if this is your field. The shame that you project here lands on women and girls, and I think you should reflect on the absurdity of on being able to talk about these subjects, and use your logic and knowledge to deliver clear information, free of childish embarrassment.

Jennifer GlickmanJun 3, 2017

You skirt the issue of fairness but saying "everything should be taxed." But everything isn't taxed. There are exemptions for things like sunscreen which isn't a medication, but we agree we want to make it as attractive as possible. What is at the heart of this matter is that this tax unfairly burdens WOMEN with a specific tax. Men don't need tampons and pads. Women do. And while you may say $12 a year in tax isn't making anyone poor, you aren't considering a family with, say, 3-5 women in it. For 20-30 years. California estimates $10million in taxes would be lost if "feminine hygiene products" werent taxes. That's a lot of money being taken out of the hands of women. you already admit that women earn less than men do it is not equivalent to taking just $12 a year per woman. As a proportion of income, it winds up costing more than $12 for a man does. And that makes it even more unfair.

NicoleAug 18, 2017

It is true you can't take tax policy on prescription medications and apply it directly to personal care products. However, you're missing a few points.

1. You're viewing this matter as a single, self-contained issue that compares to other "much bigger issues." Those who support tax exemption on menstrual care products are viewing it as a SUBSET, or a symptom, of a large, central problem of women's rights.

2. "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."
I don't think you're in a position to make that judgment call. Not because you're a male, but because you do not seem to have been very invested in women's rights in general. While the lack of interest is not necessarily a fault in and of itself, the ensuing lack of knowledge and perspective compromises your ABILITY to think logically and prioritize rationally.

3. " if society determines that feminine hygiene products are necessities"
While I can see how good, solid arguments can be made both for and against the tax exemption, at least from a policy point of view, whether or not menstrual hygiene products are necessities is not a matter of question. If they weren't necessities, that would mean they were optional. Optional means you can choose or not choose to use them. Can women choose not to use them? If you're so uncomfortable just talking about it, imagine seeing the actual blood and torn uterine lining in your classroom, on your living room couch, in restaurants and gyms, and your kids' daycare. Yeah. They're necessities. By the way, your personal feelings are irrelevant to women's rights or tax policy. Leave them out if you're trying to make an argument.

Unkl ToddOct 24, 2017

Taxing tampons It is actually good tax policy?

Really? Really?

IF society determines that feminine hygiene products are necessities?

IF? IF?

There’s no misogynistic conspiracy here, but please be assured of one thing. If men were the ones bleeding each month, there would be no tax on feminine hygiene products. They would be considered necessities.

IF there were no byline on this article, there would still be no doubt that it was written by a man. And for the record, I’m not a misandrist.

Submit comment

Tax Analysts reserves the right to approve or reject any comments received here. Only comments of a substantive nature will be posted online.

By submitting this form, you accept our privacy policy.

* REQUIRED FIELD

All views expressed on these blogs are those of their individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Tax Analysts. Further, Tax Analysts makes no representation concerning the views expressed and does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, fact, information, data, finding, interpretation, or opinion presented. Tax Analysts particularly makes no representation concerning anything found on external links connected to this site.