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The Economics of a Period: Why Aren't Menstrual Products Free?

December 26 2020 | Written by Rhea Kumar (She/Her)

Disclaimer: Throughout this blog we may use the term “women” to remain consistent with data mentioned.

In 2019, the United Nations declared that menstruation is a human rights issue. 

How could that possibly be? Let’s look at the numbers. 

In 2018, it was reported that one third of Canadian women say that they have struggled to afford menstrual products.  In the United States, more than one-fifth of women have reported that they are unable to afford menstrual products on a monthly basis.  

If the financial burden wasn’t enough, there are health-related consequences that result when a menstruator doesn’t have access to clean tampons and pads. With little to no access to affordable products, menstruators are often forced to use things that are highly unsanitary but close at hand to accommodate for the lack of menstrual products. What would you do if you didn’t have access to a tampon or pad? Would you shoplift? Some individuals have resorted to this. 

In India, 70 percent of all reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, directly related to inaccessibility to products. Additionally, a study published in 2015 found that individuals who use the same tampon for a prolonged duration of time can develop infections that lead to toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal condition. 

Why does all of this matter?

Policymakers are the gatekeepers when it comes to making menstrual products accessible. 

To date, Scotland is the only country in the world to make period products free. Only eight states in the U.S have put forth legislative bills to eliminate taxes on tampons and pads, and in Canada, the federal sales tax on such products has been lifted, yet accessibility to these products remain unequal. Evidently, period poverty will not end with tax-free tampons and pads, but it is certainly a good place to start.

The question remains: Do tax breaks actually benefit menstruators? In 2018, a study conducted at the University of Richmond Law School used a sample of 16,000 consumers and found that a tax break removes the unequal tax burden and could make menstrual products more accessible for low-income consumers. The findings were based on empirical evidence based on New Jersey’s decision to repeal tampon taxes from its sale tax base in 2005. 

The prices for menstrual product consumers decreased by 7.3 per cent after the repeal of menstrual products tax. 

Without delving too far into numbers, let’s just say this: a tax break relieves financial burden from low-income menstruators. 

While conducting research for this week’s post, it was essential to understand the other side’s opinion, and to fully assess some arguments that support why tampons and pads should be taxed. The strongest arguments presented by lawmakers, as seen in Tennessee, are to the tune of, “What about state funds? Who’s going to pick up the tab when menstruators are exempt from taxes on their products? Why do menstrual products get special exemptions?” 

Well, the answer to these questions may be found in a bathroom stall. As menstrual product activist, Jennifer-Weiss Wolf points out, if lawmakers are somehow able to fork out money every year to fund free toilet paper and hand soap in public bathrooms, then the same mentality should be applied to menstrual products. After all, toilet paper is necessary for hygienic purposes, and so is soap. The population that menstruates shouldn’t be limited to such hygienic privileges just because they bleed every month. Lawmakers have created the norm, giving us a sense of entitlement that bathroom stalls should contain a nice white roll of toilet paper and some hand soap, so why is there a larger concern about “who will fund menstrual products?” States and provinces have been funding hygienic products for as long as we can remember, so what makes a tampon or pad different?

Sidenote: If you don’t understand the struggle, just imagine having to carry your own roll of toilet paper and hand soap every time you left the house. 

Not convinced? It’s best to go back to the basics, and define what a period is: the flow of blood from the uterus. Therefore, menstruators require tampons and pads to stop the flow of blood. Stopping the flow of blood is also the reason why people use band-aids for cuts and scrapes, and that’s why in many states, band-aids are considered tax deductible items. So, shouldn’t tampons and pads fall under this category too?

This is the basis of Zoe Salzman’s argument. Salzman was one of the lawyers that filed a lawsuit in 2016 against the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance to eliminate the state’s sales tax on menstrual products. She argues that while many medical supplies like band aids, gauzes, and dressings are tax-free medical supplies, then so should tampons and pads. After all, they all fulfill the same purpose: to stop the flow of blood. 

Salzman and her team won their case, and tampons and pads are no longer taxed in the state of New York. 

So tax exemptions are great, and certainly can be done within a legislative capacity. However, in the case of Scotland, it is proven that menstruation products can be more than just tax-exempt. They can be absolutely free. 

In November, Scotland passed a bill that now makes it a legal duty on local authorities to ensure that items such as tampons and sanitary pads are available to “anyone who needs them.” Scotland had already broken ground years ago when it became the first country in the world to offer period products for free at schools, colleges and universities. However, the passing of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill will protect this right. 

There is now a legal duty on local authorities to ensure that free items such as tampons and sanitary pads are available to "anyone who needs them".

Pretty great, right? 

Though it’s too early to tell how the allocation of the free menstrual products will be planned, the scheme of the bill will be operational within two years of the legislation becoming a law. Until the legislative results of Scotland become a worldwide phenomenon, menstruators will continue to pay taxes and steep prices. The good news is that with enough advocacy, lawmakers will (hopefully), not be able to ignore the calls for action for much longer. 

Is it fair to say that those who bleed every month have been financially punished for having a uterus? That’s what Meghan White, the founder of Ottawa-based organization, Period Packs, thinks. White’s organization aims to end period poverty at the local level by providing menstrual products to menstruators to last the whole duration of their period. White says her movement is grounded in the aim to provide menstruators with health supplies to maintain their basic human dignity. 

In the United States, Free the Tampons is an organization that is trying to make its advocacy nation-wide and highly accessible for all. It’s website makes it clear that the organization is aiming to normalize free accessibility to tampons and pads just as toilet paper, seat covers and soap are. The organization provides free advocacy kits for individuals who want their workplace or schools to provide free menstrual products. The downloadable kits offer useful resources that include budgeting help and tips for organizing the logistics. 

In India, where rural menstruators are not able to access products due to geographic barriers and heavy financial burdens, there are “Make Your Own Pad” movements that follow a micro-model created by locals for locals. One movement, now referred to as the ‘Indian sanitary pad revolution’ was spearheaded by an Indian man who was shocked to find out that his wife was using a dirty rag as in place of a menstrual product. That was in 1998. Fast forward to 2020, he has now created a machine that is user friendly, and allows menstruators to make their own sanitary products.