By Torey Van Oot
Nov 10, 2018 @ 5:00 am
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In the months long lead up to the 2018 midterm elections, you heard a lot about how the outcome would impact your life. And many life-changing measures did indeed come to pass after a record number of voters hit the polls on November 6. Women made their presence felt in Nevada, in particular: The state sent its first-ever woman to the Senate, and approved a ballot measure that will directly impact the bottom lines of the millions of women who live there.

Question 2 on the ballot's backside, which passed with 56 percent of the vote, exempted feminine hygiene products from state and local sales tax, making Nevada the 10th state to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax.”

First, in the interest of accuracy, it’s important to clarify that there is no specific tax on tampons. But in the vast majority of states, tampons are considered a “luxury” item under the law and subject to state and local sales taxes, while other “necessities,” like food and medical devices, are not. Menstrual equality advocates argue that on top of being patently unfair (there is no equivalent monthly taxable purchase men have to make, and critics of the tampon tax like to point out that Viagra remains tax-free in most states) the added costs can be a big burden on vulnerable populations, including low-income and homeless folks who have to go about their daily lives while menstruating, whether they can afford a package of pads or not. 

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How much does it cost?

The sales tax you pay on an individual box of tampons isn’t going to set you back much. Even in a state with a super high sales tax (upwards of 7 percent), we’re talking about 50 cents added to the bill for a $6.99 pack of 34 Tampax Pearls. In states on the lower end of the sales tax spectrum, it’ll be closer to 30 cents a box.

But over a lifetime of periods, those dimes add up. The average woman will endure about 450 periods before hitting menopause. Let’s say you buy one box of tampons each month. That means you’re paying your state government somewhere in the ballpark of $100 to $225 in taxes on tampons over your lifetime. That’s before you add in any local sales tax levies or what you’ll pay if you add pads or panty liners to your cart, too. Prefer costlier organic tampons? Get ready to pay even more.

And maybe a hundred bucks over your life doesn’t sound that wild, but when we add up how much people who menstruate spend collectively, you can kind of see how this is an undue burden put on one segment of the population. More than 100 million women and girls live in the 35 states that still tax tampons (five states — Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Oregon, and New Hampshire — effectively don’t have any sales tax at all). Now, not all of those women get periods or use tampons (shout out to all the brave and enviro-friendly Diva Cup users out there!). But let’s say, conservatively for the sake of this estimate, that even 50 percent of those women are within menstruating age, get a period, and use feminine hygiene products. Using an average state sales tax of 5 percent, our back-of-the-sanitary-napkin-math suggests Americans who menstruate are spending more than $275 million a year on state taxes on their period products.

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That figure helps explain why there’s still resistance to repealing tampon taxes in many corners of the country. On the state level, the tax payments mean money in the bank for lawmakers to spend on any number of services. Marketplace did the math and estimated that Nevada — one of those high-sales-tax states — will lose somewhere between $5 million and $7 million a year in tax revenues due to the change. In neighboring California, where lawmakers have tried and failed to eliminate the tampon tax in recent years, state budget crunchers project that period product sales generate $20 million for the state’s coffers. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, cited that when he vetoed a tampon tax bill back in 2016.

So, what's the good news?

Nevada isn’t the only bright spot on the map when it comes to menstrual equality. The movement to make period products tax-free has gained momentum in recent years. At least four of those states that eliminated the tampon tax have done so in the past two years, according to NPR. New York, which eliminated the tampon tax back in 2016, went a step farther this spring, enacting a proposal to make tampons and pads free in all public schools. Bills on the subject are flowing in state capitols across the country. In 2017, lawmakers in at least 10 states (California, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin) tackled the issue, according to the Tax Foundation. Three more, Nebraska, Virginia and Arizona, considered bills this year. The issue has found public backing from big names ranging from Amber Rose to President Obama. And let's not forget Meghan Markle, who's been diligently dedicated to period poverty on a global scale since well before she was a Duchess (she took on a leadership role with UN Women way back in 2014). 

“I have to tell you, I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items,” Obama said in an interview back in 2016. “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”

The former POTUS is probably right about that last part. Which brings us to another reason to be optimistic: The midterms also marked a major win for women serving in elected office; for the first time ever, more than 100 women were elected to the House of Representatives. Will that wave of women wash up loads of female-friendly legislation? If so, we might suggest a certain tax-code change to the states that haven't gotten the memo yet.