After years of failed attempts, Utah has eliminated its sales tax on menstrual products in a sweeping reform passed by the Legislature.

“It’s very humbling to think of women, girls, every person who menstruates, they’re going to have that savings. And that is a beautiful thing," said Emily Bell McCormick, founder of The Policy Project, a health policy group in Salt Lake City.

McCormick helped lead local efforts to end the “tampon tax,” including holding a rally in October at the Utah Capitol. Organizers of the event spoke about how other items, including Rogaine and Viagra, were considered medically necessary, while tampons and pads were not.

The tax savings are “something that men have experienced for a long time with their health needs, and it’s time for women to enjoy that same benefit,” McCormick said.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Sara Shumway, 16, and her father, Roger, join a rally at the Utah Capitol on October 16, 2019, in an effort to end the sales tax on women menstrual products.

The bill creates a sales and use tax exemption for menstrual products, including tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups, sanitary napkins or “other similar tangible personal property designed for hygiene in connection with the human menstrual cycle.” It adds that menstrual products do not include soaps or cleaning solutions, shampoo, toothpaste, mouthwash, antiperspirants or suntan lotions or sunscreens.

Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna, had tried for years to exclude disposable hygiene products from the state’s sales tax, without success. McCormick thinks what made the proposal pass this year was “timing and national momentum.”

Utah is the 18th state to eliminate the tampon tax, she said. And there’s a national movement, called Tax Free. Period., from the nonprofit Period Equality and LOLA, an organic period product company, that’s considering legal action against states that haven’t eliminated the tampon tax, based on discrimination law.

But in Utah, specifically, “I think what happened that was different this year is that we were able to organize and get people out there to reframe the issue for our Legislature,” McCormick said.

In the past, this was “seen as a pretty extreme movement,” and it seemed uncomfortable to talk about menstruation in a public space. But “we reframed this as, 'Oh, no, this is totally normal. It’s completely appropriate to talk about. It needs to be talked about," she said.

While eliminating the tampon tax was seen more as an issue supported by Democrats in the past, McCormick said advocates were able to find bipartisan support this time. “That was 100 percent key to the success of this. This has to be seen as nonpartisan,” she said.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Rep. Robert Spendlove speaks during the Utah Taxpayers Association 2019 legislative outlook conference Jan. 7, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Spendlove said he supported the Legislature eliminating Utah's tampon tax.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, said he “didn’t know the issue very well. It was honestly because of Emily. ... She did a really good job of kind of explaining the issue to me, helping me understand the inequity that existed in our existing tax system. And once she explained it to me, it was easy for me to support it.”

Spendlove said he thinks removing the tax is “a great move for the state” and “now we really are on the right side of this and helping to make a vital product just a little bit less expensive.”

In June, the Salt Lake City Council created a pilot program to make menstrual products free at bathrooms in some city buildings. And the Salt Lake City International Airport currently provides free hygiene products.

Emily Bell McCormick

By now removing this sales tax, people have “a little bit more money in their pocket, especially when we look at women who are in need, who have low incomes," McCormick said.

At the October rally in Salt Lake City — held in conjunction with similar rallies across the country and national organizations, such as PERIOD and Days for Girls — McCormick talked about local high school and college students who couldn’t afford menstrual products and instead used cotton balls with rags or Depends.

But “maybe more important is just being recognized in legislation is huge for women,” McCormick said. “Women feel that they’re valued, and that they’re heard. And they’re starting to become more represented in the way that our government and our legislative body, in particular, handles their issues."

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.