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The Latest Tax Battle in States Is Over Tampons

Bills to make feminine hygiene products tax-exempt have been introduced in several states this year. So far, the legislation has already failed in one.

Should tampons be taxed? Last year, mainstream news outlets started covering "menstruation activism" in a more serious way. This year, the action is turning to state legislatures.

Bills have been introduced in at least five states -- California, Michigan, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin -- to remove the sales tax on all feminine hygiene products, including tampons and pads.

Last year, Cosmopolitan magazine began a petition to push states to stop taxing tampons. It claims women spend more than $70 a year on these products.

"These items are a necessity -- not an option, not a luxury item -- and should be treated as such," said the petition, which more than 50,000 people have signed.

In Utah, where the legislature often votes in favor of tax exemptions, a tampon tax bill died Tuesday, with an 8-3 vote from an all-male committee. The bill would “open the door to other and unlimited requests for tax exemptions," said state Rep. Ken Ivory.

But in other states, the fight is just getting started. 

Five states -- Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- already exempt feminine hygiene products from sales taxes. In Maryland, these products have been tax-exempt since at least 1975. 

President Obama said in a recent interview that he doesn't understand why feminine hygiene products are taxed. “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed," he said.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said this week he'll likely support an effort to take the taxes off tampons. An ordinance proposed on Wednesday would exempt them from local sales taxes by reclassifying them as medical devices.

The anti-tax bills introduced in states so far this year aren't just about removing a financial burden on women, sponsors say. They're also about starting a broader conversation about women’s health.

“I’m not doing this for the shock value," said California state Rep. Cristina Garcia, who has introduced a "no tax on tampons" bill. "It’s a conversation that needs to happen, and women I’ve talked to really want it to happen."

Garcia hopes that schools will eventually carry feminine hygiene products for free. California currently has a voluntary program in schools to give students free condoms, and Garcia wants that to extend to tampons and pads. 

She also wants to make it easier for low-income women to pay for these products. Right now, federal law prohibits people from using food stamps to buy them. “If you’re living dollar-to-dollar, budgeting in $7 to $10 a month for these products can be tough,” said Garcia.

Achieving such goals may be an uphill battle.

“I think in more conservative areas of the country, this is still a very taboo topic. I’ve seen people get squeamish when I talk about it,” said Michigan state Rep. Sarah Roberts, who shares many of Garcia's longer-term goals. “But this is part of our biological make-up. A male legislator will never understand what it’s like to go to a bathroom and not have a quarter on the day you start your menstrual cycle."

But Roberts is hopeful about abolishing the state sales tax on tampons, not only because her bill has bipartisan support, but because more than a dozen of its co-sponsors are men.

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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