- CVS is reducing the price of store-brand period products and will pay the sales tax in 13 states, according to a statement from the company.
- Healthcare providers and advocates welcome the move as a step toward period justice.
- People who menstruate have been grappling with rising costs, and people were challenged financially to afford them because of income loss during the pandemic. For them, CVS’ announcement may feel like a rare act of relief.
It seems like it’s impossible to watch the news these days without hearing about inflation, shortage, and shortage-induced inflation.
But last week, people who menstruate got a rare piece of good news. CVS announced it would lower prices on CVS Health and Live Better tampons, menstrual pads, liners, and cups on Oct. 13.
CVS is also now paying the sales taxes on menstrual products in 12 states: Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.
CVS cannot assume the taxes in other states that charge them because of laws that do not allow third-parties to take care of the tax for customers. One physician applauded the decision.
“Another step toward acknowledging how vital these products are to people who menstruate,” says Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell, a physician, TEDx speaker, and founder of Beyond Clinical Walls.
Curry-Winchell and other providers and advocates discussed the significance of CVS’ announcement and the importance of addressing period poverty, particularly in a world struggling to recover from the economic strains brought on by the pandemic and mounting inflation.
What is the pink tax?
What’s more essential: Donuts, tattoos, bingo game supplies, or menstrual products?
For the 1.8 billion people worldwide who menstruate each month, the answer is probably period products.
And yet, Kentucky doesn’t tax donuts, bingo supplies are tax-exempt in Missouri, and people getting tattoos do not incur a sales tax in Georgia.
Kentucky, Missouri, and Georgia are three of the 22 states in the U.S.that charge a sales tax for menstrual products, also known as a pink tax, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies.
Twenty-two other states, including New York, California, Maryland, Colorado, and the District of Columbia, exempt period products from taxes.
Alaska, Montana, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Oregon do not have a state sales tax. But cities and counties may impose their own taxes. The Alliance for Period Supplies says sales taxes on period products are usually 4 to 5%.
Usually, essential items, like most food and medication, are tax-exempt. Dr. Padmini Murthy, the global health lead for the American Medical Women’s Association, says it’s long past time period products made this list nationwide.
“Menstrual inequity affects menstruators in the U.S. and contributes to missed school or workdays and impacts on mental well-being and self-confidence,” Murthy says.
The impact of inflation on period products
A 2019 survey of 2,000 women indicated that women paid $13.25 per month for menstrual supplies. Therefore, the authors estimated that the average person who menstruates would spend about $6,360 during their reproductive lifetime (12-52 years old).
That was three years ago. Since then, there are two things menstrual products have not been exempt from: Inflation and supply-chain issues.
NielsenIQ data released in June of 2022 indicated that the price of tampons rose by 9.8%, while the cost of pads increased by 8.3% from January to May. The same report also called attention to a shortage of period products, pointing to supply chain issues, increased costs of materials, and labor shortages.
“Contributing factors may include interruptions in the supply chain and increased costs of raw materials used in making menstrual products, including cotton, rayon, and plastic,” Murthy says.
But the consumer quite literally paid the price.
“Inflation is hitting people in the wallets,” says Dr. Sophia Yen, MD, MPH, the co-founder and CEO of Pandia Health. “Women shouldn’t have to choose between menstrual hygiene products and food, rent, and medications.”
Murthy hopes that CVS’ move reduces — and, better yet, eliminates — the number of menstruating people who have to make these decisions between which essential items to purchase.
“By reducing the cost of CVS menstrual products and covering the tampon tax on other products, when possible, CVS is taking bold, strong steps in addressing period poverty,” Murthy says. ”Given the presence of CVS across the country, the impact on those who will be buying menstrual products is significant.”
Though CVS will cover the “pink tax” on all items, Yen does note that only CVS period product prices will be reduced. Though she wishes the move went further, she does think CVS is operating in good faith.
“CVS can control how much profit it makes on its products,” Murthy says. “It can’t control how much others charge.”
Murthy agrees and hopes it has a ripple effect that inspires other brands stocked by CVS to take a similar measure.
“This move by CVS may pave the way for other menstrual product manufacturers to do the same and bring much-needed media attention to this important public health issue,” Murthy says.
Period poverty, the pandemic, and beyond
While CVS’ move will provide relief for anyone needing period products, healthcare providers and advocates particularly highlight its potential effect on historically marginalized and underserved communities.
Research around period poverty is limited but growing. A 2019 study of low-income women in St. Louis, Missouri suggested that two-thirds of respondents could not afford menstrual products at some point during the previous year. More than 1 in 5 people (21%) experienced this hardship monthly.
About 13 months after that study was published, the pandemic hit, and period poverty grew.
Research published in 2021 surveyed 1,496 menstruating people from March to October 2020. Authors indicated that pandemic-related income loss was a strong predictor of menstrual product insecurity, especially among people from lower-income communities.
“Many people were faced with a reduction or loss of income that left little to no money to purchase food, female products, or medications,” Curry-Winchell says. “The resources that helped provide a lifeline to access menstrual products such as schools, churches, and resource centers like food banks were shut down or out of stock.”
And yet, at least anecdotally, period poverty didn’t get as much attention as food insecurity and the plight of businesses forced to close during the pandemic. Why is that?
“The answer is bias and stigma and the lack of attention by many to issues that affect mostly women and girls,” Murthy says. “Discussion about menstruation is often considered taboo, with both men and women feeling embarrassed to talk about it. It is important to understand that menstruation is a natural biological process and a normal phenomenon.”
A natural, biological occurrence that requires special hygiene products. When these products are lacking or unaffordable, Murthy says it harms people.
“Women either miss engaging in critical activities, or they are forced to use inconvenient and sometimes less healthy unsanitary alternatives,” she says. “Period poverty can affect an individual’s education, income, health, emotional well-being, and standing in the community.”
Murthy is realistic. She knows CVS’ move won’t wipe out period inequality in one big swoop. But she hopes it has a domino effect toward putting period products on the same level as food and medication (and donuts and tattoos).
“To support and protect individuals from undue burden, taxes on menstrual products should be eliminated, the cost of menstrual products should be factored into social welfare programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, and — like toilet paper and soap — menstrual products should be provided free in schools, places of work, and other public spaces,” Murthy says.
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