Ending States’ Sales Taxes on Basic Needs




Dear Editor:

As noted in the Upshot’s Jan. 7, 2016 article “Latest Sales Tax Controversy: Tampons,” most states’ sales tax programs exempt items the state legislatures consider to be necessities.  Certainly, defining “necessities” is subjective, as one state’s income tax statute likely exempts items that may not be on anyone else’s list of “necessities.”  For example, in Connecticut tax exempt items include current U.S. and Connecticut flags, and magazines sold by subscription. However, tampons, sanitary napkins, and diapers, which are undeniably necessities for women of reproductive age, and infants and toddlers, respectively, are taxable. Connecticut, Maryland, and North Dakota, exempt incontinent pads for adults, but impose taxes on baby diapers. Indeed, as with tampons, only a handful of states exempt baby diapers from sales tax. Yet, as with tampons, diapers are an undeniable basic need for the most vulnerable members of our society.

Sales tax is inherently regressive, and often hits struggling and low-wage households the hardest. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy reports that the bottom 20 percent of wage earners in California pay 6.8 percent of their income in sales tax, while the top 20 percent pay only 0.8 percent of their income in sales tax. Those in the bottom quintile also pay a larger proportion of their income for necessities like tampons and diapers.  The Center for Economic and Policy research found that families in the bottom 20 percent of income, who buy diapers, spend nearly 14 percent of their after-tax pay for diapers, again a basic need.

Needed diapers and sanitary products are recurring expenses that add up over time, and both are required to maintain good health.  On average, infants and toddlers require 50 diapers a week, or 200 diapers a month. In an industry study of diaper need, mothers reported they often fell about 11 to 12 diapers per week short.  Repealing the diaper tax would free up enough money for the purchase of 15 additional diapers—two days’ worth on average.  For some families, that could mean the difference between having enough diapers, or being forced to make an insufficient supply last longer by delaying changes or reusing diapers. Such delays can lead to diaper dermatitis, urinary tract infection, and other adverse health conditions. Tampons or sanitary napkins are a monthly recurring necessity for women of reproductive years. A year’s supply of tampons can cost upwards of $70. 

Sales tax exemptions are often considered only in terms of state revenue lost.  But shouldn’t we also consider their impact on advancing public health? An insufficient supply of diapers has health consequences, not only for the child, but also the child’s family and community.  A Yale University study found a direct correlation between diaper need and adverse effects on the health of both mother and child. Might greater access to diapers or sanitary napkins improve the health of women and children? A lack of diapers and/or menstrual supplies can cause women to stay at home rather than go to work or school, limiting their economic opportunities and productivity, and impoverishing society as a whole. This is reason enough to recognize the necessity of tampons and diapers and exempt them from sales tax.


Alison Weir

Alison was also quoted in a related article on Mom.me, “Having Your Period in California Could Get Cheaper.”

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