This past July was a great month for the vaginas and wallets of women in New York State: Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill calling for an end to the state's sales tax on female hygiene products—more popularly known as the "tampon tax." And on the first of September, the ban officially took effect. Or did it?
After signing the bill, Governor Cuomo said, "This is a regressive tax on essential products that women have had to pay for far too long and lifting it is a matter of social and economic justice.” Damn right. New York is only the second state to repeal the tampon tax since the cause gained political momentum last year—meaning most American women who struggle to pay for their hygiene products continue to suffer this injustice.
But for as much press as New York's progressive move has garnered—Cuomo’s office estimates that it will save consumers $10 million a year—many local business owners are still in the dark about the tax repeal. I decided to hit the streets (and pharmacies) of New York City to get a sense of which stores had slashed the tax, and which were still bloating the price.
In total, I visited six tampon-sellers, all located in either the Flatiron or East Village neighborhoods of Manhattan. The stores were a split between chain pharmacies and local business—CVS, Duane Reade, and Walgreen’s on one end, an independent pharmacy, corner grocer, and mid-sized market on the other. Armed with a tote bag and a credit card, I swiped around the neighborhood to see who was still charging the tax, and the data is pretty straight forward: The big retailers already adapted, while the small ones had not.
Sellers of feminine hygiene products across the state were sent a notice on August 1st notifying them of the update to the tax, according to Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a leading activist on this issue. But just because a letter was sent, this doesn’t mean they necessarily saw it. “I can imagine for many stores, especially small ones, they may not pay that much attention to this kind of notice.”
When I asked the corner grocer why I was taxed $0.44 on a $5 box of tampons, he had no clue what I was talking about. (He graciously offered to give me back the extra change.) According to Weiss-Wolf, sellers receive information from the state all the time, and it would be fairly easy for a notice like this to get lost in the shuffle. But, she said, “the state should do more” to make sure sellers are aware of this high-profile update. Because people are definitely looking.
On September 1st, Weiss-Wolf organized a social media campaign called #TweetTheReceipt, aimed at seeing which stores were cutting the tax from day one. Duane Reade got off to a rocky start, with customers reporting that the tax was still in effect at some, if not all, stores.
— LC (@LCDeluxe) September 1, 2016
When Fusion reached out to Duane Reade to find out what went wrong, a spokesperson told us: "While updating our POS [point of sale] systems in preparation for the sales tax exemption taking effect today, we experienced an error that prevented the new exemption from going through. We are working to correct the issue and apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused." However, when I visited a location (different from the one above) on Friday, I was happy to find the purchase was tax-free.
While a few cents may seem like much ado about nothing, for some women just barely getting by, it can make all the difference. “You shouldn’t have to decide whether you should eat lunch that day or stay healthy," New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras, a vocal politician on this issue, told Fusion in June of last year. The comment was in reference to her fight to provide free hygiene products for low-income and homeless women.
The good news is, if you are erroneously charged tax for your tampons, you have some recourse. After hearing reports that stores hadn't axed the tax yet on Thursday, Governor Cuomo tweeted a link to a page from the state's Department of Taxation and Finance where people can submit receipts for reimbursement. A little annoying? Yes. But for those who need every penny, and for every woman who feels this tax was a violation of their rights, at least it's something.
From here, the hope for Weiss-Wolf and other activists is that other states will follow suit. A similar bill has passed in California, and is just waiting for the governor's signature. She encourages women to continue tweeting their receipts until all 50 states fall in line.
It's like Beyonce says: ladies, get in formation.
Want to end the tampon tax in your state? Check out this Change.org petition.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.