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The sudden controversy around the cost of tampons

Top YouTube creator Ingrid Nilsen interviews President Obama from the East Room of the White House. (Video: The White House)

This year, for the first time, the leader of the free world blasted the cost of America’s tampons.

“I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items,” President Obama told lifestyle vlogger Ingrid Nilsen in a YouTube interview. “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”

Nilsen responded: “I don’t know anyone who has a period who thinks it’s a luxury."

“Michelle would agree with you on that,” Obama replied.

Tampons aren't really singled out as "luxury items" in state tax codes, but they're often taxed as non-necessities — a fact that has spurred intense debate over what some call a "womanhood penalty." The momentum of the movement is growing as lawmakers nationwide push to strip taxes from menstrual products and as college students call to make them free. 

In January, California introduced a bill to slash taxes from menstrual products in the state. Similar bills have arrived in New York, Ohio, Utah and Virginia. On the city level, Chicago could also soon waive the taxes, which city leaders called “unfair” and “discriminatory.”

The effort to make menstrual products more accessible has hit  schools, too. On Monday, New York City’s Education Department announced that 25 public schools will start offering free tampons and pads to students.

Necessities such as food and medical supplies are usually exempt from sales taxes. Menstrual products, however, tend to carry the extra cost. Wisconsin taxes tampons but not Viagra. New York taxes pads but not Rogaine. Indiana taxes sanitary napkins but not barbecued sunflower seeds.

Those who oppose sales taxes on menstrual products argue that women must buy them or, well, bleed everywhere. And since men don’t pay taxes on equivalently critical products, women absorb the economic blow. The additional cost for one gender is nothing new. So why are women questioning it now?

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president for development at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the price of having a period started grabbing more attention as the stigma around menstruation began fading.

More than ever, she said, people are talking about periods on television and social media. When presidential candidate Donald Trump accused Fox's Megyn Kelly last fall of having “blood coming out of her wherever,” for example, women started tweeting the GOP front-runner about their cycles.

The heightened conversation has highlighted problems that legislators previously missed. Girls, unprepared for an unexpected period, cut class or stay home. Women without money for pads improvise with toilet paper and risk infection.

“If we, in our first-world country, have girls who are missing school because their parents can’t afford menstrual products for them — that’s a problem,” said Weiss-Wolf, also a human rights lawyer. “This is about health and dignity.”

So far, 40 states tax menstrual products. Tampons and pads are exempt from sales taxes only in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Massachusetts. (Five other states don’t have sales taxes.)

Earlier this month, five Manhattan women sued the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance over the "tampon tax," asserting that the state discriminates against women when it marks up menstrual products.

“The department’s double standard for men and women finds no support in the tax law and serves no purpose other than to discriminate,” according to the lawsuit. “It is . . . undisputable that tampons and sanitary pads serve multiple medical purposes. They are not luxury items, but a necessity for women’s health.”

Not everyone supports a change. Last month, an all-male panel of Utah lawmakers voted to keep taxing menstrual products, citing the need for the revenue and worry over “subjective variations"

The Los Angeles Times' editorial board also opposed lifting taxes on menstrual products, calling the effort a "feel-good" initiative that would zap millions of dollars from state funds. "It would ... do more to harm than help the state's low-income residents," the authors wrote.

Regardless of backlash, Weiss-Wolf said, chatter around the issue has inspired widespread policy action.

California State Assembly member Cristina Garcia (D) has argued that removing the burden would make California’s tax code more gender equitable. In a press release, she noted that a box of tampons costs about $7, and women in the state pay more than $20 million annually in taxes on menstrual products.

In one report, a Connecticut woman sold her food stamps to cover the cost.

“This is not insignificant to women, especially poor women on a tight budget who struggle to pay for basic necessities like a box of tampons or pads every month for their adult life,” Garcia said in a statement on Facebook. “If we can’t make them free we should at least make them more affordable.”

The New York City Education Department's decision to offer free tampons and pads in 25 schools was designed to help low-income students and destigmatize the menstruation experience, advocates have said.

A Queens high school that started offering the freebies last year said attendance among female students in the program’s first six months increased from 90 percent to 92.4 percent, according to Lillian Zepeda, a spokeswoman for New York City Council member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.

Some activists have proposed adding free tampons and pads to all public restrooms, since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration already requires stalls to be stocked with toilet paper.

Chicks on the Right bloggers Amy Jo Clark and Miriam Weaver, however, slammed the cause in a column for the Indianapolis Star. "It's amazing that these women don't realize how weak and woe-is-me they sound when they demand that everyone else pay for their stuff," they wrote. "And these are the same women who complain about Republicans setting women back?"

But the idea is gaining strength on college campuses.

Last week, student activists at the University of Arizona wrote a letter to the school asking for tampons and pads to be added to every campus bathroom.  Columbia University announced it would start offering free menstrual products in its health center after spring break, following the leads of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Minnesota.

Julie Chen, a sophomore at Emory University, recently started a petition at her school urging officials to update campus bathrooms to accommodate half its student body. When your period strikes early, and you're a mile from your tampon supply, she asked: What are you supposed to do? Run to the nearest convenience store and miss 20 minutes of a lecture?

By Monday, 900 people had signed the Google doc. 

"This one guy said: 'Why would you make guys pay for that? We don’t benefit,'" Chen said. "I don't know about other schools, but my school gives out free condoms. This is another way to prioritize a woman’s health, which is good for everyone."

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