New York Aims To Become The Next State To Toss The Tampon Tax

May 18, 2016
Originally published on May 17, 2016 4:00 pm

Feminine products are having a moment. With some calling for a red wave to take the taboo out of menstruation, politicians across the country are trying to make tampons and sanitary pads as affordable and accessible as possible.

Five states have eliminated sales taxes on pads and tampons: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland and Minnesota. In New York, a bill awaits the governor's signature, and other efforts to improve access to sanitary products are underway.

The bill would reclassify pads and tampons so they're exempt from the 4 percent state sales tax, like many other items on pharmacy shelves, including bandages, swabs and contraceptives. The bill passed both houses of the legislature, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's media representative has spoken positively about it.

In New York City, a bill would provide free sanitary supplies in schools, homeless shelters and prisons. Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito backs the bill, and the mayor has expressed support for the cause.

New York lawmakers in Congress are working on the issue, too. Rep. Grace Meng, D-Queens, has introduced the Fund Essential Menstrual Products Act of 2015 (also known as the FEM Products Act). It would make feminine hygiene products eligible for purchase with pretax Flexible Spending Accounts. And Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-Manhattan, has asked the National Institutes of Health to research the safety of certain fibers and chemicals used in the products.

As is so often the case, politics is catching up with pop culture. Although menstruation management has long been a favorite topic among comedians including Tina Fey and Key & Peele, tampon advertisements now mock the euphemistic ads of yore, and period starter kits are being marketed with cheeky YouTube videos.

That may help make it easier for proponents of the legislation to push ahead. "Everyone's talking about this inequity," says New York Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, who introduced the state tax exemption bill.

At the High School for Arts and Business in Queens, a simple machine may be a game-changer. It has dispensed free tampons and pads since September.

"It keeps me from missing class, in case I need one," says sophomore Emily Torres. "I don't have to worry about accidents. It's always there if I need it."

The school is one of 25 around the city piloting the dispensers this school year. Previously, students had to get tampons or pads from the school nurse.

"You go to the nurse's office when you're sick," says City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, has advocated for free menstrual supplies in all schools. "These girls aren't sick. Getting your period just says that you're healthy."

Principal Ana Zambrano-Burakov thinks making it easier for girls to get these products has improved class attendance.

"I have heard sometimes girls stay home because they don't have the money to buy what they need, and that's no longer the case," she says. "I just want girls to stay in school and do well, and we're going to support them no matter what."

Rosenthal isn't sure exactly where the momentum is coming from. When she introduced her bill last year it got nowhere. Even this year, despite the unanimous support, she said the legislative discussion was awkward for some.

"I used the words 'period' and 'blood' and they were shifting in their chairs," she says. "Some couldn't look at me because I was saying these words."

As High School for Arts and Business student Ashley Celik might put it: that's on them.

"Sometimes when guys overhear us, they're like, 'Omigod! Gross! Keep it to yourself!" she said. "Of course we're going to talk about it. It's something normal. You shouldn't be telling us we shouldn't be talking about it because it's awkward for you."

This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WNYC and Kaiser Health News.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tampons and pads are being marketed with more boldness than ever. It's no longer a big deal to see them discussed in pop culture, and now politicians are getting more comfortable with it. Around the country, lawmakers are working to make them cheaper and easier for girls and women to get. From WNYC, Fred Mogul starts us off at a high school in Queens.

CELINE SIERRA: So you're just turning this, and then a pad comes out.

FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: High school senior Celine Sierra is showing me a little piece of history.

SIERRA: Or a tampon comes out, yeah.

MOGUL: Celine and her friends are at the High School for Arts and Business in Queens, New York City's first public school with 100 percent free pad and tampon dispenser. They and the principal invited me into the bathroom to take a look. When the dispenser showed up in September, it caught Celine's friend Emily Torres off guard.

EMILY TORRES: I kind of stared at it for a little because usually when you see those dispensers, they won't say free. So, you know, it's bold. It's 25 cents, 50 cents, whatever the case is. And so I was like almost scared to use it.

MOGUL: But just for a second and pretty quickly this very industrial piece of machinery became a game changer. It used to be if their periods made a surprise appearance, they'd have to go to the nurse's office for supplies. And Ashley Celik, who's also in on this bathroom confab, says that was the worst.

ASHLEY CELIK: There was this one time when I was - it came out of nowhere. And then I walked to the nurse's office, and there was a huge line.

MOGUL: And Ashley wasn't about to publicly announce what she needed. So she just stood there waiting and waiting.

CELIK: So I was like oh my God. I'm missing notes. I could be taking notes. I have a test, all that stuff.

MOGUL: New York City council member Julissa Ferreras helped the school get the dispenser.

JULISSA FERRERAS: You go to the school nurse's office when you're sick. Getting your period just says that you're healthy.

MOGUL: It's part of a movement that some feminists call a political red wave to remove the taboo from menstruation. Five states have already exempted feminine products from sales tax, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Minnesota. New York has a proposal to follow suit. There's also a move in New York and other states to supply free tampons and pads in homeless shelters in women's prisons and federally to let women purchase them with pretax dollars. Ferreras wants every single elementary, middle and high school in the city to have a free dispenser.

FERRERAS: In all my years as an elected official, I've never heard anyone concerned about the budget for toilet paper. The reality is that is why we're legislating because this needs to be law, not just the budget item.

MOGUL: It's tough to say why periods are getting their due politically just now. So maybe it's pop-culture that shifted first? Old-school tampon TV ads used to feature lots of women twirling in flouncy skirts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Every woman is looking for the perfect fit.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You bet.

MOGUL: And now tampon marketing is on billboards, bus shelters, online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Senseless leaks have been wrecking innocent undies for too long.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: We're making history ladies.

MOGUL: New York Assembly member Linda Rosenthal credits all this media attention with boosting her bill. She wants to exempt tampons and pads from sales tax statewide.

LINDA ROSENTHAL: When I introduced it in May of last year, it didn't capture anyone's attention or imagination. This year, it's a whole different story. Everybody's talking about this inequity.

MOGUL: Not that last year's crickets chirping on the assembly floor turned into this year's huzzahs from all her male colleagues.

ROSENTHAL: I used the word period and blood and some people of the older generation - they were shifting in their chairs, and some couldn't look at me because I was saying these words.

MOGUL: But the awkwardness didn't stop the assembly from unanimously approving her bill. Maybe it even helped. And the Senate passed a version unanimously, too. And if the governor signs it into law, pads and tampons will move on to the same tax-free medical supplies list that includes bandages, syringes and condoms. For NPR News, I'm Fred Mogul in New York.

CORNISH: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WNYC and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.