RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Those of you who don't have to buy tampons may not know that in many states, you pay a sales tax on menstrual products. Several states, though, have either eliminated that tax or are considering doing so. Stacey Vanek Smith and Constanza Gallardo from Planet Money's The Indicator have been adding up the costs of the so-called tampon tax.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Sales tax - most people in this country pay sales tax on most of the things they buy. It's a big source of state revenue. Some items like food or water that are seen as, like, necessary to survival are not subject to this tax.
CONSTANZA GALLARDO, BYLINE: Prescription and nonprescription drugs are also exempt - medicines like aspirin, DayQuil or Viagra - also medical equipment and supplies, which can be things like ChapStick or gauze.
VANEK SMITH: But tampons, pads, cups and all of the menstrual hygiene products do not fall into the medical supply category in many states. And a lot of people argue that's not fair.
GALLARDO: Zoe Salzman is one of the lawyers that filed a lawsuit in New York to eliminate the sales tax on menstrual products back in 2016. Salzman and her team argued these products are a medical supply, and they should be tax-exempt.
ZOE SALZMAN: And one example the department of tax gave was things like bandages, gauze and dressings. And so those are items that are used to staunch the flow of blood from the human body. And tampons and pads, as well as cups and panty liners - those are used to staunch the flow of blood from the uterus. So again, clearly, you know, these items have to fit within that definition.
VANEK SMITH: Zoe made her case, and the New York Legislature took notice and, in fact, passed a bill back in 2016 to exempt feminine products in New York from sales tax. So that extra cost here in New York - we do not pay it anymore.
GALLARDO: Yeah. But many other women in other states do pay it. And over time, that cost adds up. And a study published this year by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that 2 out of 3 low-income women in the U.S. couldn't afford mental products at least once a year. And nearly half of them struggled to buy both food and menstrual hygiene products over the last year. In fact, there's economic research that the tax break on tampons really benefits low-income people. That's based on consumer data after New Jersey's tampon tax was repealed back in 2005. Research showed that by eliminating the tax, it made products cheaper and more accessible to lower-income women.
VANEK SMITH: But some people say the tampon tax needs to stay.
NICOLE KAEDING: When you start moving into this world of exemptions, you start adding complexity because you have to define what is and is not a qualified good under the exemption.
VANEK SMITH: Nicole Kaeding is with the Tax Foundation, a think tank that studies tax policy. She says sales tax exemptions can be problematic because they can mean that states don't have enough money to fund public policies or programs, and as a result, states may have to increase other types of taxes to get that funding back.
GALLARDO: Back in 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that planned to eliminate the state's tampon tax. He argued that by not taxing menstrual products, California could lose up to $20 million in annual taxes.
VANEK SMITH: And the governor has a point. Here in New York, where we eliminated the tax on menstrual products, we're losing about $14 million a year in lost tax revenue. Of course, this isn't just an economic issue. It's a political issue, too. Last year, for example, Nevada voted to make menstrual products tax-exempt.
GALLARDO: And this year, Michigan, Georgia, Ohio and California are pushing for legislation to repeal the tampon tax.
VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.
GALLARDO: Constanza Gallardo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.