Beyond the Tampon Tax: How Far Will California Go to End 'Menstrual Inequity'?

UC Davis student Annie Wang 20, demonstrates the feminine products provided by "Free the Period," which places free emergency sanitary napkins and tampons in every women's restroom on campus.  (Maria Avila/CALmatters)

Annie Wang vividly remembers the panic she felt when her period arrived unexpectedly as she sat in her freshman year chemistry class at UC Davis.

With no tampons or pads at the ready and nowhere nearby to get them, she tried to focus on the lecture instead.

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"I stayed in my seat and prayed it would not be too bad," Wang said. "When I got up I had left a mark on UC Davis in a very bold way. It was a very embarrassing moment for me."

Wang knew she wasn’t the only one who’d experienced this predicament. "A lot of my classmates had experienced similar situations where they were in class or going to class and suddenly got their period and were not able to go to class or had to scramble," she said.

Now she’s one of many student activists, advocates, experts and officials working toward what is being called "menstrual equity." In California, that means exempting period products from state sales tax and ensuring that tampons and pads are provided as freely as toilet paper in public schools and universities, as well as government building and prisons.

It’s part of a global movement — partially funded by feminine hygiene product manufacturers — to get more policymakers, particularly men, to consider the impacts of menstruation. A documentary about "period poverty" — the reality that some women around the world miss work and some girls can’t go to school because of cultural taboos or because they can’t afford period products — won an Oscar this year.

Already in California, public schools in low-income areas are required to provide free period products, and college students are petitioning for free products in state universities.

But the most closely watched effort is underway in the state Capitol, where lawmakers expect to advance a bill to makes period products tax-free statewide.

A few years back, there were a lot of eye rolls and snickers when Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens carried such a bill. Embracing the novelty of it all, she dubbed herself "Tampon Queen" and propped a huge pad and tampon in her office window.

"It allowed a conversation to happen that was more than a tax — it’s about menstrual equity and our biology," she said.

Her bill cleared the Legislature in 2016, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying it should have been addressed within the state budget and that "tax breaks are the same thing as new spending." That prompted the following tweet retort from Garcia:

A subsequent effort in 2018 died in committee.

But with a new governor in place, Garcia is trying again. This time, her bill — AB 31 — is expected to get the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom, and her colleagues have been so eager to back her bill that it has more co-authors than any other this legislative session. Last time, she said, "I had to beg them to join me."

Brown, though, was hardly the only critic of getting rid of the period tax. Editorials in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times have contended that it’s unwise to carve out exemptions from state sales tax this way — especially when the state taxes items equally as essential, like toilet paper, diapers and toothpaste. The California Tax Reform Association has criticized the bill for trying to draw a new line in the state tax code, what it calls "gender necessity." And the California State Association of Counties also opposes doing away with the tax on the grounds that counties depend heavily on those revenues for essential services.

"I respect the need for California to be fiscally sound," Garcia countered. "But the state budget should not be balanced by a tax of a person’s uterus. The same goes for local governments; our tax codes should be gender neutral."

A legislative analysis said the bill, if enacted, would cost the state $9 million in lost revenue in the first year and $19 million in the second year.

To be clear, there is not currently an extra tax on tampons and pads. But unlike food and medicine, they are not exempt from California sales tax because the state considers them not necessities, but luxuries.

Thus far, 10 other states including New York, Florida, Connecticut and Nevada and Washington, D.C. have banned sales taxes on period products. Across the globe, Canada, India and Australia have long since eliminated the tax and a battle is underway to end it in the United Kingdom.

"Today, the most progressive state in the union is behind the curve in providing a gender neutral tax code that doesn’t profit off of a woman’s basic biological functions," Garcia said.

Menstruation is about equity and engagement as much as it is about health, said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president of The Brennan Center for Justice, who co-founded Period Equity, which is behind many of the tampon tax campaigns across the county. It produced a glitzy ad featuring model and actress Amber Rose who is fondling a bezel-set diamond pendant from which a bejeweled locket contains a tampon. She asks, "Where else would you keep something 36 states tax as a luxury?" The ad's kicker: "Tell the government where to stick this tax."

"The taxes and the challenges of access are unfair and discriminatory toward women," said Weiss-Wolf. "It’s an enormous distraction and at worst a hindrance to being fully present."

"The tampon tax is not the issue that will solve period poverty, but it sends a message that menstrual hygiene is necessary and it’s a right," said Nadya Okamato, who at age 16 founded PERIOD. The Menstrual Movement, a nonprofit that donates menstrual products and works on menstrual policy and education with 350 chapters across the world. "It’s something that happens to the majority of the global population for an average of 40 years of life and it makes human life possible. It’s not something that should be treated with shame and stigma. It should be normalized."

The group, along with a handful of female celebrities and the CEO of period products company THINX, recently drafted a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for free products at all schools.

Some critics on social media, however, warn that once the government makes products available at no charge, costs to taxpayers could escalate because some people who can easily afford to buy their own tampons and pads will instead avail themselves of the free ones.

"This not about whether I can afford it," Garcia said, noting that she's asked for free products to be available in state Capitol bathrooms. "It’s about how my biology does not behave in an expected matter. If I’m tracking down period products I’m missing out on work."

After Wang’s embarrassing moment at school, she started a campus chapter of PERIOD., which is petitioning the UC Davis administration to provide free products in all campus bathrooms. The school approved and funded a pilot program to provide free products, stocked by student volunteers, in up to 13 campus bathrooms.

The student chapter surveyed female students and reported that 52 percent of respondents said they missed class or work in the last school year because they could not access a tampon or pad.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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