Maine House Rep. Denise Tepler, D-Topsham, is proposing a bill that would exempt sales tax on menstrual products. (Times Record photo.)

TOPSHAM — It’s going to come. Period. 

Menstruation, that is, and half the population endures it monthly for much of their lives. Yet the hygiene products used to absorb the flow continue to be taxed. 

No more in Maine, if Rep. Denise Tepler’s proposed LD 286 makes it successfully through the current legislative session.  The bill, now being weighed by the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, would exempt feminine hygiene products from the state sales tax.  

Many states are considering exempting taxes on period products, which Maine lawmakers first took up two years ago. Tepler, D-Topsham, states in her testimony before the Taxation Committee last month that throughout the 127th Legislature, members of the Taxation Committee she was serving on received many emails requesting removal of the sales tax from tampons and other products women use to contain their periods.  

“These messages indicated that many women regarded the tax as discriminatory,” Tepler stated in her testimony. “New York State faced a lawsuit brought by two women on these grounds and passed the law before the suit went to court. According to USA Today, in 2016, a Florida woman filed a class-action lawsuit against the State of Florida for the discriminatory practice of taxing menstrual products.” 

Lynn Comer of the Alliance for Period Supplies states that recent research has found that one in four women have been unable to purchase period supplies in the past year due to lack of income. 

“As a result of this period poverty, menstruating individuals may resort to unsafe behaviors, such as using unsanitary alternatives or leaving a product in place too long, increasing the risk of infection or toxic syndrome,” Comer wrote. “One in five low-income women report missing work, school or similar events due to lack of access to period supplies.” 

She said eliminating the sales tax will, in effect, reduce the price of these products 5.5 percent, increasing affordability.  

The committee has received testimony from several organizations, as well as students advocating for the tax exemption. 

Greely High School junior Audrey Hankinson said her research shows that a year’s worth of period products typically costs more than $70, “and that doesn’t include heating pads, regulating birth control, pain relievers or replaced clothing that so often comes hand-in-hand with the reality of periods.” 

She argues that repealing the “tampon tax” on all menstrual products will make them more affordable and empower women. 

“It’s a part of our biological makeup, yet it is considered a luxury,” Hankinson wrote in her testimony. “There are currently 44 states who don’t tax Viagra — including Maine — and several states do not tax Rogaine, a hair-regrowth supplement. Apparently, staying clean, staying healthy, and staying educated is not a luxury all women are granted. They have to be able to afford tampons over food if they want any of those ‘luxuries.'” 

Janis Hogan of Belfast, a nationally certified school nurse, testified it has been estimated that a woman will endure some 456 total periods or roughly 6.25 percent of her life. As a school nurse, she had students who need access to the hygiene products she keeps in her office they wouldn’t have otherwise. 

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England also testified in favor of the bill. The organization provides reproductive and sexual health to more than 12,000 people in Maine at four health centers, including one in Topsham.  

“We support this legislation because we see this tax as an example of economic disparities that women face every day,” states Nicole Clegg, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of public policy for Maine. 

Clegg argues that many women are funneled into lower paying jobs and although they make up nearly half the overall workforce, they represent two-thirds of the low-wage workforce.  

She adds that low-paying jobs often have unpredictable schedules without benefits. Meanwhile childcare costs often exceed the costs of rent and college tuition and may absorb up to 30 percent of a median family’s income. 

“These costs have a disproportionate impact on women, as nearly two-thirds of mothers are either the primary, sole, or co-breadwinners for their families,” Clegg writes. 

The Maine Legislature took up the matter last legislative session with LD 206, co-sponsored by Tepler. However, the Tepler said while the bill passed, it wasn’t funded. The fiscal note attached to the bill projected the loss of General Fund revenue of $553,896 in fiscal year 2017-18 and $768,069 in fiscal year 2018-19. The Local Government Fund would losa projected $11,304 in fiscal year 2017-18 and $15,675 in fiscal year 2018-19. 

Tepler said the tax on period products generates approximately $1 million a year in Maine.

No fiscal note has been attached yet to LD 286. 

“I think that the bottom line is that there are two issues,” Tepler said Friday. “One is, it feels discriminatory and unfair because it’s certainly something that women absolutely need in their lives. And the other issue is that, because it so negatively affects women in poverty, that I would very much like to help the products be even a tiny bit more affordable.” 

Tepler argues that the grocery staples section of Maine’s sales tax code is seriously out of date because it doesn’t include tampons and other menstrual products. She’s “begging” the Tax Committee next time it reviews the grocery staples part of tax exemptions, currently all food items, to look at whether or not there are items that shouldn’t be there such as high end meats or gourmet foods. 

“Are we certain that the items that we do not tax because they are ‘necessities’ reflects the lives of modern women and men?” Tepler asks. 

A similar issue is diapers, which are still being taxed. Tepler is looking to change that for a second time as well with LD 863, which goes before the Taxation Committee.

With the growing workforce issues, the state should consider the impact on the working woman, “of having to stretch out the use of a single tampon or pad over the course of a work day,” she said. “This can be humiliating as well as unhealthy.” 

Menstrual products are expensive and aren’t available through state nutrition assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Women, Infants and Children service.

Along with diapers, menstrual products are also the only non-food items that Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program is committed to providing.

“They are so expensive and do strain household budgets in a very similar way to food,” said Hannah Chatalbash, the organization’s development director. “They’re in that same basic needs category in our opinion so we do purchase tampons and we’re lucky that we can get them regularly from Good Shepard Food Bank at low rates so we can distribute them to our clients.”

Chatalbash said the food pantry has made a more concerted effort in the last year to have more tampons and pads in stock.

I would say we’re in support of any effort or initiative that improves the quality of life for the client base we serve and helps make life more sustainable for low income Mainers,” she said, “and I do think that this bill does move in that direction. 

According to heathline.com, the average menstrual cycle is 24 to 38 days and typically lasts four to eight days. Each year in the U.S. people spend upwards of $2 billion on menstrual products and the average menstruating person uses almost 17,000 tampons or pads in a lifetime. Five states don’t charge a sales tax on menstrual products and nine have exempted the products from the “tampon tax.” 

“I ask this committee to strongly consider giving dignity to all women, regardless of income,” Tepler said, “by exempting this necessity for women of childbearing age (a group of Mainers we do wish to grow) from the state’s sales tax and modernize our code to reflect life in 2019.” 

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