Are Twinkies really more essential than tampons?

Time to end the unfair and gender-based taxation of menstrual products
Photo: Christian Cable

What do maraschino cherries, Pizza Pockets, and Pop Tarts all have in common? They’re considered essential, non-taxable items according to the Government of Canada. Want to know what’s not considered essential? Those absolutely essential items I use to stop my very non-optional period that comes along every month from leaking all over the place and all over you nice people.

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That’s right ... tampons, pads, diva cups, and panty liners are items I can simply choose to take or leave, according to our elected officials, and because of that, I (and all Canadian women who rely on them, unless they’re still using grandma’s cloth pads method) must pay the 5 per cent GST on them.

“In 2014, it’s estimated that approximately 17,876,392 Canadian women between the ages of 12–49 spent about $519,976,963.00 on menstrual hygiene products,” explains the No Tax on Tampons petition currently circulating. “That means the government collected approximately $36,398,387.00 in government sales taxes because our uteruses did what they do naturally.”

To date, the petition urging federal Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay to exempt feminine hygiene products from taxation, has garnered over 62,000 signatures. Similar campaigns are currently taking place in other countries.

In the United States, food stamps don’t cover feminine products. In the U.K. men’s razors aren’t taxed, but tampons are. Here in Canada, Pizza Pockets, Twinkies, and wedding cakes are considered essential, yet feminine products used by half of the population once a week every month for a solid four decades of our lives, aren’t. Does anyone in the government think that tampons are treats? A luxury item I buy when I feel like splurging on something? Because I can assure you they most certainly are not.

If one considers the fact that women already make less money than men, pay more for services like dry cleaning and haircuts, most single moms live precariously close to or below the poverty line (I don’t even want to think about what periods are like for homeless women or those living in underdeveloped countries), this amounts to nothing more than gender-based taxation and government-sanctioned sexism. It’s not ok.

How can basic groceries, prescription drugs, educational services, most health, medical, and dental services, day care services, and yes, even music lessons (which, while delightful, are nowhere near as essential as tampons) be considered tax-exempt, yet menstrual hygiene products are considered luxury items? In what world can a box of Pop Tarts be considered an essential item, yet my tampons are not? Why are sanitary pads taxed, yet if I were to roll on down the aisle and grab the incontinence pads (yes, adult diapers, that essentially do the same thing by absorbing liquid) I’d be exempt from paying tax. Where’s the logic in that?

Over the past decade, a few (female) MPs have attempted to introduce bills to drop the GST on these items. The most recent being NDP MP Irene Mathyssen, who last introduced the Excise Tax Act for feminine hygiene products in 2013.

A sales tax on feminine products is unfair, unaware, and utterly opportunistic because you’re taking advantage of a captive consumer audience that consists of only one gender. I suspect the reason why a movement to abolish taxes on feminine products hasn’t gained more momentum until now is because most people still consider periods icky, won’t discuss them publicly, and finally, because it only affects half of the buying population.

Rupi Kaur’s recent battle against Instagram’s persistent censorship of her period-focused photographic project brought to the forefront society’s bizarre and long-standing menstrual taboos.

Statistically, at any given moment, one in four women between the ages of approximately 12 and 55 is in on her period right now. But you wouldn’t know it the way we never talk about it. Female nudity is unapologetically used to sell most commercial products out there, yet we still won’t see a woman walk to the washroom with a tampon in her hand.

The offence, apparently, to public decency and mores would be too great.

No matter which cultural practices you look at, or which religious doctrines you scour, an aversion to periods and a desire to hide away women who are menstruating seems to be a common denominator. The stigma, embarrassment, uneasiness of menstruation as being unclean and undesired persists across the board.

A number of cultures still believe that women on their periods can spoil meat and turn milk. Greek Orthodox customs dictate that menstruating women do not go up for communion. Judaism and Islam forbid intercourse during a woman’s period, while some Hindus isolate women during menstruation. In some religions, menstruating women are not supposed to enter a temple. In Christianity, the ritual uncleanness of menstruating women eventually transformed to the idea that all women (on their period or not) were ritually unclean, and this idea quickly became part of the justification of why women can’t distribute communion and essentially be ordained priests.

Some people may scoff but I believe there’s an inherent connection between this reluctance to discuss periods and this up-to-now lack of activism in this area. The Western world may pride itself in that it doesn’t hold “primitive” taboos surrounding women’s periods, yet commercials depicting period blood as non-offending blue liquid, jokes about crazed, hyper-emotional women who can’t make a rational decision while “on the rag”, Newt Gingrich wondering if periods make women unfit for combat, persist. The taboos persist.

But women are becoming louder and bolder about discussing what affects them, and openly defending their reproductive rights, breastfeeding, and yes, even the abolition of a tax on tampons.

Gloria Steinem wrote decades ago that if men got periods, sanitary napkins would be “federally funded and free”. Twenty years later I’d be happy if we simply removed the tax from something that all women consider an essential and unavoidable part of their healthcare.

Sign the petition. Make your voice heard.

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