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Editorial: End the sales tax on menstrual pads and tampons

The tax is simply unfair to women and can make the products less affordable for low-income families.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Speaking bluntly, tampons, pads and other menstrual hygiene products are a health necessity for nearly all women.

And no, contrary to a misconception — at least among a few men and boys — a Tacoma high school student informed a state Senate hearing on Monday that women and girls can not hold in their periods.

“I know; it’s 2020,” Nora McCarthy, a senior at Annie Wright High School, said to some stifled giggles among state senators on the Ways and Means Committee and others in the audience.

Yet, unlike other necessities in Washington state, such as most groceries and medical supplies, those products are taxed at the checkout stand; 6.5 percent goes to the state and between 0.5 percent and 3.9 percent goes to city or county governments.

That’s a tax, of course, that is not paid by men, but it’s one that imposes a particular disadvantage on lower-income women and families and adds to the already regressive nature of the state’s package of taxes.

A survey of low-income women in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2018, found that at least two-thirds could not afford menstrual hygiene products at least once during the year, and more than 1 in 5 said it was a problem affording the products at least once a month, the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology reported. Nearly half the women in the study said they were unable to buy both food and feminine hygiene products at times throughout the year, Reuters reported last year.

A tax that can add more than 10 percent to the product’s price makes those products all the less affordable.

The cost for low-income women and families, the journal reported, meant that some women attempt to make do by using rags, tissues or paper towels, which can pose a risk of infection and toxic shock.

The sales tax for menstruation products, however, would be eliminated under legislation in the state Senate. Senate Bill 5147 would exempt those products from state and local sales taxes and make that exemption permanent. Similar bills have been proposed for several years in the Legislature, seeking to leave the list of some 17 states that still tax those products. Among the bill’s sponsors is Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley.

It’s an easy case to make that taxing these products is unfair and can discourage good health practices. The bill’s language is clear: “Feminine hygiene products are not a discretionary purchase, they are a necessity for which there is no alternative for females to maintain proper health and hygiene.”

The exemption would mean the state’s consumers could save about $4.5 million each year — perhaps about $300 or more per household — but that’s also $4.5 million less available each year to pay for programs and services in the state. Local governments, too, would see less revenue. City, county and other local governments — who already face tight budgets and unfunded mandates from the state — would lose about $2 million each year, combined, according to a fiscal note prepared by the state Department of Commerce.

But an unfair tax is an unfair tax. Revenue needs alone can’t justify a tax that treats state residents unequally.

Lawmakers should exempt menstrual products from the sales tax, but should look for opportunities to replace the lost revenue for the state as well as for local governments.

Beyond the tax issue, lawmakers and other public officials can also seek out ways to increase the accessibility of period products in public spaces, particularly for students in public schools and colleges.

Among those pushing for that accessibility and a reduction in the stigma surrounding menstruation are the members of an ASB club at Kamiak High School, a chapter of national organization called Period. The Menstrual Movement. The young women in the club have performed public education and service projects, such as assembling “period packs” of menstrual supplies that are distributed to homeless women in shelters and on the streets.

They have also advocated for school officials to provide free pads and tampons in school restrooms. That would be an added expense for school districts, but it would also promote the interests of student health and could encourage less tardiness and better attendance for those without easy access to tampons and pads.

Admittedly, this is not the most comfortable of discussion subjects; the good-natured titters during the Senate committee hearing made that point. But at its core this is about simple hygiene and basic fairness, a discussion common to all, regardless of gender.

It is 2020, after all.

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