The Tampon Tax: Stringing Us Along


The Tampon Tax – what is it? What’s being done about it? Why should it be scrapped? And what are politicians saying about it prior to the UK elections?

To be really blunt about it, any cis women or trans people who use sanitary products in the UK are being unfairly taxed. As the politicians take chunks out of each other before the general election, this tax on women has become an unusual political battleground. Almost all the major parties have weighed in on it: the Tories, Labour, the SNP, and even UKIP.

What is the Tampon Tax?

In the UK, some items have VAT (value added tax) included in the price. VAT is a tax on various goods and services bought in the EU. Each country sets its own rates and in the UK there are three levels: a standard rate of 20% (this applies to most things), a reduced rate of 5%, and a zero rate.

Items you don’t have to pay tax on in the UK include:

  • Basic or staple food items – but not takeaways, sweets, crisps, fizzy drinks, energy drinks, alcohol or hot food. Some people have argued there should be no VAT on any Remember the ‘pasty tax’ arguments?
  • Books, newspapers and magazines
  • Children’s clothes and shoes
  • Public transport fares
  • Some goods provided in special circumstances, such as homecare equipment for people with disabilities
  • Medical items, including wigs and incontinence products

The sometimes confusing classification of goods has led some to argue that VAT is discriminatory. The pasty tax is one example… another is the Jaffa Cakes legal battle.

One class of product which is falling foul of the seemingly arbitrary classification system is… sanitary products.

Sanitary pads and tampons are subject to the 5% VAT rate, despite being pretty much a necessity for roughly half the world.

My kingdom for a tampon!

The UK prides itself on being one of the most medically-advanced countries in the world. Why, then, aren’t sanitary products exempt from VAT? Pretty much anyone who bleeds every month for anything up to and including (or passing) thirty years will tell you they’re essential.

If we already have medical goods included in the zero rate, surely tampons and pads can be included as well?

Let’s talk ostrich burgers. And ‘needs’.

If I can go to Iceland and buy a frigging non-essential OSTRICH BURGER with no VAT, why can’t I buy sanitary products without having to hand out to the government?

No woman goes out and asks for periods. They’re messy, inconvenient, and often painful. But if you get them, you just get on with it. You learn to make ‘feminine hygiene’ part of your routine. Just as many people make shaving or trimming a beard part of their routines. Imagine all the disposable razors bought in one person’s lifetime (disposable razors are tax exempt, by the way). Now imagine how much more that would cost if VAT was included as well.

As sanitary products are unlikely to be bought for the use of cis-men, the ‘tampon tax’ can very much be seen as a tax on women. If we can decide our own tax rates, and decide which goods are exempt, then there is no political reason why this tax should exist.

A global health issue

Before the cries of ‘feminazi’ are thrown around, this is also a health issue. In her Guardian article, Jessica Valenti made the case for not just untaxed but free tampons where needed, arguing that:

“sanitary products are vital for the health, wellbeing and full participation of women and girls across the globe”.

Valenti cites saddening UNICEF statistics that show 10% of African girls miss school during their periods, and 73% of female factory workers in Bangladesh miss an average of six days’ work (and therefore six days’ pay). All because they don’t have access to a basic hygiene item that many of us take for granted. If we want equality for women everywhere, then sanitary products must be accessible and affordable at all times, for everyone.

In Uganda, girls miss up to eight days’ school per term because of their periods. A lack of washrooms and sanitary products makes an already unpleasant time even worse. They are forced to improvise using children’s cloth nappies, or even leaves. NGOs are attempting to alleviate the problem – Afripads makes reusable menstrual kits, Makapads manufactures disposable pads from paper waste, and SNV teaches girls and their parents how to make reusable sanitary towels from cloths they have at home. At some schools, this knowledge has even been added into art and craft clubs.

While these charities are providing cheaper alternatives, for most rural citizens the imported products are still too expensive, and often don’t reach more isolated areas. The UK is on nowhere near the same level of need. But while Africa’s problem is private companies jacking up prices, here it’s our own UK government screwing us over. And for no discernible reason, either – unless it’s no-one wanting to say ‘tampon’ in the House of Commons.

2015 – Laura Coryton’s petition goes to Downing Street

Believe it or not, the tampon tax has been bandied around parliament for a good 15 years. In 2000, after sustained lobbying by female MPs, the then-Chancellor Gordon Brown announced VAT on sanitary products would be dropped from 17.5% to 5%. This reduction was estimated to be worth £35 million per year – an amount not to be sniffed at. At the time, Brown was called out for refusing to mention it in the House, or even to utter the words ‘sanitary protection’, despite it being part of the Budget changes.

The Tampon Tax has remained at the 5% rate since then and was largely forgotten. But in 2014 it leapt back into public consciousness. Londoner Laura Coryton started a petition to scrap the tax on, which has 227,412 signatures to date. There are similar petitions in countries all over the world, including Australia, Canada, France and Malaysia. On 10 March 2015 Laura delivered a petition with 100,000 signatures (the number required for an issue to be debated in parliament) to 10 Downing Street.

Where do the political parties stand on the Tampon Tax in 2015?

  • Labour: Describes tax as “ridiculous”
  • SNP: Has committed to scrapping the tax
  • Conservative: Describes tax as “morally wrong” but says it would be too complicated to change
  • UKIP: Has pledged to scrap the tax, but only if the UK leaves the EU

Since then various politicians have weighed in on the issue in the run-up to the general election. On 15 April 2015 Labour’s Ed Miliband described the tax as “ridiculous” in a radio interview with BBC’s Women’s Hour. On the 21st the SNP went one better, and made a commitment in its 2015 manifesto to scrap the tampon tax. It stated “we’ll address a longstanding failure in our tax system by demanding that VAT on sanitary products is removed. Sanitary products are a necessity, not a luxury, and should not be taxed.”

Not one to be left out, David Cameron gave his ten pence on the 22nd April, in an interview with BBC’s Radio 1. He admitted the tax is “morally wrong” but claimed the tax system and EU regulations mean it would be too complex to change. UKIP also played the EU angle, pledging to remove the tax, but only if the UK leaves the EU. Suzanne Evans, the party’s head of policy, said: “Under EU rules no item that has ever had VAT charged on it can have VAT removed completely.”

Considering we already have many items tax-exempt in this country that aren’t in other EU member states, that statement probably belongs with the used Always wrappers.

Laura Coryton wrote a brilliant five-step plan on how the tax can be abolished across the EU, and she and her supporters have made it to step three already. Fingers crossed that the politicians follow through (oo-er) on their promises.

If you want to contribute to the Scrap the Tampon Tax campaign, you can sign the petition, spread the word on social media, or lobby your local MP. This is a global health and equality issue, and one that CAN be solved. Don’t let so many women be treated unfairly just because politicians are too embarrassed to talk about this.