It’s wrong for the government to profit off women’s periods. Tampons and pads are essential to half the population, yet Washington is among the 31 states that still impose sales tax on these items. Necessities like prescription medication qualify for an exemption under the state tax code — as do some less-than-vital purchases, like a box of Frosted Flakes and other sugary cereal, which somehow also make the cut.
Calling out this absurdity is a growing global movement for menstrual equity — the demand for affordable, accessible menstrual products for all, including especially vulnerable populations such as low-income teens and students, low-wage workers, incarcerated women and those experiencing homelessness.
One key policy reform is eliminating the so-called tampon tax and ensuring that menstrual products are sales-tax free. Why does saving 10 cents on the dollar matter? For starters, it lifts a small financial burden. It forges a model for economic and gender equity. And it is a gateway to get lawmakers and others talking and thinking about the wider implications of menstruation — social, health, economic and otherwise.
Washington is now poised to become the next state to eliminate the tampon tax. This session, Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, introduced Senate Bill 5147 to exempt menstrual products from the state sales tax. She’s been aiming to advance this policy since she first introduced it in the House in 2015 during her tenure there.
That’s the same year my petition, posted in partnership with Cosmopolitan magazine — “Stop Taxing Our Periods. Period.” — catalyzed nationwide momentum. Since then, legislative progress has been swift and bipartisan. Thirty-two states have taken up the issue and eight succeeded in permanently scrapping the tampon tax: Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio and Utah all passed legislation; Nevada took the vote directly to the people via a 2018 statewide ballot measure; Rhode Island’s exemption for menstrual products was cemented as part of the state budget. As of Jan. 1, California also started exempting menstrual products — but only temporarily via a budgetary clause slated to expire in July 2023. And still other U.S. jurisdictions have eliminated the tax: Chicago, Denver and the District of Columbia.
Washington’s tampon tax currently amounts to $6.6 million annually. The American Medical Association rightly deems it a “regressive penalty” — directed at women, who already earn less than male counterparts in an economy that manages to bleed us dry at every turn.
This practice poses a legal liability for the state, too. It is not just that the tampon tax is inequitable and unfair; it is flat-out illegal. A national coalition — called Tax Free. Period., joined by major law firms, local counsel, leading academics, law students and nonprofit advocates — has mobilized to challenge the taxation of menstruation. This team has put governors, attorneys general, legislators and tax commissioners across the country on notice: Either defend state laws and regulations that impose a punitive and discriminatory tax, or proactively change these archaic, unconstitutional laws.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Berkeley Law School and a leading constitutional law scholar, joined the group to argue in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed that the tampon tax amounts to sex-based discrimination in violation of equal protection, at both the state and federal levels.
In Washington state, the argument is doubly potent. The state Supreme Court has held that laws that discriminate on the basis of sex are subject to strict judicial scrutiny, an even higher standard than the federal level. Defending the tampon tax would require Washington to demonstrate a “compelling” state interest in burdening women this way, raising revenues on our backs.
Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and all members of the state Legislature would:be wise to avoid the expense of being taken to court to defend what amounts to state-sanctioned discrimination. And the good news is that there’s already a bill they can get behind, here and now.
By law, by budget or by court order, the tampon tax needs to go — in Washington and every state.