Emily Bell McCormick: Menstrual products are not a luxury and should not be taxed

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Daphne Nelson rallies with others in an effort to end the sales tax on women menstrual products at the Salt Lake City Capitol on October 16, 2019.

It may be commentary enough when a revamp of the state tax code is the most thrilling event in the week — possibly the year.

But when an issue like the “tampon tax” — the effort to exempt menstrual products from sales tax in hopes of more gender-equitable tax policy — makes it into Utah’s tax reform bill with unanimous approval, it is something to celebrate.

Here’s why.

Despite the fact that menstrual products are used by 50 percent of the population for the greater part of their life, these things have notoriously been overlooked as items that should be “exempt” from any type of tax. Meanwhile Rogaine and Viagra — used by far less than 50 percent of the population and thought of as a “need” (menstrual products are more of a “luxury”) — enjoy not only the sales-tax exemption, but also federal tax exemption if purchased using HSAs, Medicaid and FSAs.

And changing tax code, even at the state level, is no small thing. Just ask state Rep. Susan Duckworth, who has introduced the tampon tax bill for the last four years — only to see it die in committee.

And for a reason. Utah is a fiscally conservative state that wisely hesitates on ‘extra’ spending. So, despite the inclusiveness of the issue (menstruation knows no political party), this has been pushed aside — to the detriment of half of the population.

Which is why, on a Tuesday evening at 4:30, a hint of warm weather before the cold, I found myself content sitting in a windowless room 30 in the basement of the House Building, during the meeting of the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force, to see this exemption voted in.

There are plenty of arguments as to why menstrual policy is needed.

Twenty percent of girls miss school at least once a month because of a lack of access to menstrual products. Not because of pain. Not because of moodiness. Because they don’t have a tampon or a pad.

Sheila, an educator in Utah county, spoke at the recent Stand for Women’s Health for National Period Day event and described her youth as one in which all of the girls in her community spent a week a month home from school so they could sit on rags because they could not afford menstrual products.

A 10th grader in Salt Lake said her family can’t afford menstrual products so they buy cotton balls and fold rags over them. She explained that she and her two sisters typically don’t go to school during their periods, for fear of the cotton balls falling out of their pants or not being absorbent.

And missed school can lead to a costly increased dropout rate — a person who does not complete high school costs the state about $292,000.

There are other statistics — like 25 percent of women are not able to afford period products — which affects their ability to consistently attend work. And about half of those women must make the choice between a period product, or a meal—both for themselves and for their children.

But the biggest obstacle in the progression of menstrual policy is the stigma. We scientifically know menstruation is natural and necessary — arguably more so than hair loss or erectile dysfunction. Yet because periods can be an “embarrassing” “female” “bathroom problem,” it’s tough to move menstruation into daily conversation, let alone legislation.

One national organization, Period, compared menstruation to bloody noses in a powerful video, stating, “If faces were bleeding, someone would do something about it.”

And they’re right. If 50 percent of the population had a bloody nose that lasted three to five days every month—and a quarter of them couldn’t afford product to stop it—we’d legislate.

And so it is with great relief that Utah has taken the first step.

So, thank you. Thank you, members of the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force.

There is still a long way to go. A first round bill is far from law. And there will be naysayers—there always are.

But Tuesday at 4:30, the “right” thing won. Stigmas and politics were set aside in favor of our shared humanity. And Utah took a step closer to leveling the playing field for its women and girls.

Emily Bell McCormick

Emily Bell McCormick is founder of The Policy Project, a group working to implement healthy policy in Utah and the U.S. Their current project is an effort to improve the economy and women’s success by increasing access to menstrual products. Visit thepolicyproject.org for more information.