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Finance Committee approves ‘tampon tax’ exemption

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) / Sun-Times

Tampons and sanitary napkins characterized as “medical necessities” would be exempt from Chicago’s 1.25 percent sales tax to avoid “unfairly penalizing women,” under a modest tax break advanced Friday.

Five states—Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts–have already made the products that women use each month before menopause exempt from sales taxes. Similar exemptions have been introduced in the states of New York, Ohio, Utah and Virginia.

Chicago would join the parade if, as expected, the full City Council signs off on the ordinance advanced Friday by the Finance Committee.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice-president for development at the NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, acknowledged that the tax break was a “symbolic change” that’s unlikely to make a dent in the wallets of poor women.

But she’s hoping it will be the first step in a “larger movement” to promote, what she called “menstrual equity” for women who have difficulty affording and accessing menstrual products that cost up to $10-a-month-per-person.

“The sales tax is the tip of the iceberg. In New York City, there’s going to be legislation introduced to mandate that these menstrual products—tampons and pads—be provided for free in homeless shelters, in the city’s public schools and in correction facilities for women who can’t afford them,” Weiss-Wolf said.

“It would be fabulous if Chicago did that. New York City is leading the way. It would be amazing to see other cities follow suit.”

Pressed to define “menstrual equity,” she said, “Fairness for how women are treated in society because they menstruate. They shouldn’t have to pay more for the simple biological fact and for needing a medically-necessary item.”

Tampons and sanitary napkins are currently taxed at the rate of 10.25 percent. That includes a 6.25 percent state tax, a 1.75 percent county tax, a one percent RTA tax and the city’s 1.25 percent.

The ordinance championed by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) would exempt feminine hygiene products from the Chicago tax by reclassifying them as “medical appliances” under the municipal code.

The aldermen also urged the Illinois General Assembly and the state Department of Revenue to reduce the tax on feminine hygiene products to match the one percent applied to food, medicine and medical appliances. Legislation to do just that was introduced in Springfield earlier this week.

“Tampons are currently ineligible for the reduced sales tax rate because the Illinois Department of Revenue has classified tampons and sanitary napkins as grooming and hygiene products, rather than medical appliances. However, in 1989 the Illinois Supreme Court held that tampons and sanitary napkins are necessities of life for a vast number of post-pubescent women,” Burke told his colleagues.

“For some reason, certain types of nasal sprays, eye drops and rubbing alcohol qualify for the low tax while tampons and sanitary napkins are taxed at the full rate of 10.25 percent…It is also interesting to note that the FDA classifies tampons as medical appliances.”

Hairston read aloud from a poem written by feminist Gloria Steinem, entitled, “If Men Could Menstruate.” The alderman said she first read it during a Women’s Studies class at the University of Wisconsin.

“What would happen for instance if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? The answer is clear. Menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event. Men would brag about how long and how much. Boys would mark the onset of menses and long for proof of manhood with religious rituals and stag parties,” Hairston said.

“Congress would fund a national institute…to help stamp out monthly discomfort. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of commercial brands, such as John Wayne tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-Dope pads, Joe Namath jock shields for those light days.”

Although Steinem wrote that poem decades ago, Hairston said it “sums up” the current dilemma that the tax exemption is tailor-made to address.

“It’s very poignant that she mentions [feminine hygiene products] would be federally-funded…This would be a non issue if it applied to men,” Hairston said.

Prior to the final vote, the ordinance was amended to push back the effective date of the city sales tax exemption to Jan. 1 2017.

Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, requested the delay to give a stalemated General Assembly time to reclassify feminine hygiene products statewide to make it easier and less confusing for retailers.