Commentary: Time for Utah to examine tax policy and menstrual hygiene

(Rich Pedroncelli | The Associated Pres) In this June 22, 2016 file photo, Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016 rejected an attempt to waive taxes on tampons and other feminine hygiene products along with other proposed tax breaks, saying lawmakers should propose such ideas as part of the annual state budget process rather than as one-off exceptions.

The close of Utah’s 2019 legislative session left one ‘bloodied’ issue stuck in committee for the fourth year in a row — the exemption of menstrual hygiene supplies (i.e. pads and tampons) from sales tax.

A farewell to the “tampon tax” seemed inevitable as momentum grew, with 2015 being dubbed “The Year of the Period,” and hundreds of articles as well as public opinion, to put the best kind of pressure on legislators to take note of menstrual health, and the tampon tax specifically.

The national gaze even fell upon Utah in 2016 when proposed legislation to rid the state of our “tampon tax” was dismissed in committee because of fear of “complicating” the state tax code, a code that now exempts arcade tokens, snow cannons and vending machine candy from sales tax. That the committee determining this was all-male did not help the gaze.

Utah must confront the irony of its policies by recognizing menstruation. But some of the gaze should shift to the federal government.

In honor of international Menstrual Hygiene Day, May 28, it’s time we broaden the conversation and examine the importance of legislation at a federal level that could impact women and families possibly more significantly than local legislation.

The argument goes like this. The IRS, which oversees tax collection and enforcement of tax law, has the ability to classify products according to their function. Rogaine, the hair-growing wonder-drug, is considered medically necessary when prescribed. Viagra, a wonder-drug of another type, is also considered medically necessary and therefore eligible for purchase using Health Savings Accounts (HSA), Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA), Heath Reimbursement Arrangements (HRA) and Medicaid. Even Band-Aids and sunscreen get the honored designation.

Tampons and pads are not, however, medically necessary — according to the IRS, that is. And therefore they are not eligible to purchase using HSAs, FSAs, HRAs, Medicaid, LCFSAs, DCFSAs or any other acronym or version of pre-tax dollars.

This is bad. Here’s why. Unlike other bathroom-related functions that 100 percent of the population experiences (i.e. number one and number two), menstruation is not able to be “held.” One cannot “hold” menstruation because she is late for a meeting. One cannot “hold” menstruation because she’s giving a presentation, or is at the zoo with three children or even when she is checking out at the grocery store with a line of people behind her.

As most women can attest, a menstruation-surprise, is among the most dreaded of surprises exactly because of the inability to “hold it.”

And the government understands surprises, even of a bathroom-related nature. For one, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, requires hand soap and toilet paper in bathrooms — just in case it’s one of those times when you can’t “hold it.” But not pads or tampons.

So — the scrape on your finger in need of a Band-Aid? The U.S. has it covered. Erectile issues? On it. Worried about a burn on the Caribbean cruise? The IRS won’t leave you hanging. The blood and fluid dripping from your uterus? Medically unnecessary.

With the increased involvement of understanding women and men in politics, we have seen policy and law make great changes in the lives of women in the U.S. Yet with roughly 50 percent of the population aged 12-52 experiencing three to five days bleeding on average every month, tools to manage that bleeding, are most definitely “medically necessary.”

It is time the IRS recategorized menstrual supplies as purchasable, as any other medical supply, with dedicated pre-tax dollars. Wouldn’t hurt to have Utah fix its stance on the “complicated” tax code at the same time.

Emily Bell McCormick

Emily Bell McCormick owns a boutique communication and advocacy consulting firm in Salt Lake City. She works with a range of clients, from public companies to nonprofits, including Days for Girls International, a non-profit that brings re-usable sanitary napkins and enterprise businesses to women and girls in developing countries in response to research that shows that women and girls experience increased success when their menstruation is managed.