New York Is Finally Pulling the Plug on Its Tampon Tax

This week, the New York Senate voted unanimously to stop placing a sales tax on menstrual products. Previously, the state did not classify pads and tampons as a "medical necessity"—although products like Rogaine and ChapStick fit the bill.

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Apr 13 2016, 3:45pm

Image via Flickr

On Monday, New York became the latest state to axe the so-called "tampon tax" after the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that exempts menstrual products from its sales tax.

"New York is leading the way in the fight for menstrual equity in the U.S.," said leading menstrual activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf.

Before lawmakers took action, New York was one of 40 states that apply a sales tax to tampons, pads, and other feminine hygiene products not deemed a "medical necessity." Under the state's tax code, though, products like Rogaine, ChapStick, incontinence pads, and dandruff shampoo are not taxed.

New York will now join Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts as the only states to explicitly exempt menstrual products from taxation (five other states have no sales tax at all). The bill passed the state assembly in a unanimous vote in March. The legislation now heads to state Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has voiced support for removing the tax.

"It's a tremendous win," said Weiss-Wolf.

The same month the Assembly bill passed, five women filed a class action lawsuit charging that New York's soon-to-be axed tampon tax is unconstitutional and discriminatory. The state, the complaint contends, imposes "a double standard when defining medical items for women and men" for tax exemption. Similar lawsuits have been filed recently in Ohio and California.

"From our perspective, there's no question this law needs to be changed and should have been changed a long time ago," said Zoe Salzman, an attorney with law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, which filed on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Salzman believes the lawsuit "motivated" the New York state legislature to work on the issue and pass the bill. But while she applauded the vote, Salzman noted that it's only one piece of what the lawsuit demanded. The other provision: a full tax refund for the people who "were unfairly charged this tax for so many years." (According to the suit, the tax on menstrual products nets the state about $14 million annually.)

Now that the law is set to change, Salzman said she hopes the state will set up a system to refund people subjected to the tax. The state has yet to respond to the complaint.

There's no question this law needs to be changed and should have been changed a long time ago.

So far this year, lawmakers in 14 out of 40 states have introduced legislation to end what Weiss-Wolf calls an "unfair and discriminatory practice." The Mississippi Senate recently passed a bill—now headed to the state House—that would exempt feminine hygiene products from the state's sale tax. Similar tax-related bills are also pending in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And, early this month, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. introduced a bill to remove the District's tax on feminine hygiene products and diapers.

New York's bill, though, is the first one approved by both houses of the state legislature, noted Weiss-Wolf, who was speaking on a tampon tax panel at Columbia Law School when the bill passed. "This will provide inspiration and leadership to the other 39 states," she said. And, she continued, this recent victory "echoes the bold legislation proposed in New York City to ensure access to menstrual products for the most vulnerable New Yorkers."

Weiss-Wolf was referring to efforts made by New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland to advance menstrual equity across the five boroughs. Last month, the councilwoman introduced a package of bills that would make tampons and pads free and accessible in public schools, shelters, and city jails. She also spearheaded a pilot program that made tampons and pads free and accessible to menstruating students in 25 schools across Queens and the Bronx.

On a global scale, the United States still has a long way to go. After all, in 2013, Kenya removed both its Value Added Tax (VAT) and import duty on tampons and pads. And in July, Canada eliminated its Goods and Services Tax (GST) on feminine hygiene products, although they're still subject to an import tariff. Jamaica, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Lebanon already do not place a VAT on menstrual products.

The United Kingdom will soon follow suit. After both mounting public pressure and last month's European Union vote to allow member states to lift their tampon tax, the UK government announced it would eliminate its 5 percent tax on menstrual products.

"Fair to say much of the world is ahead of the US when it comes to menstrual policy, innovation [and] enterprise," says Weiss-Wolf.

But, she adds, the tide is changing in America, thanks to activists and leaders in New York and other states where bills have been introduced. "The US is poised to see some real change," she says.