Long Reads

This is how you can help end tampon tax, once and for all

Nearly 80,000 people have signed a new petition to end tampon tax. Now that Brexit has happened and we’ve left the EU, it’s time to crack on with one of the government’s most important pledges – ending tampon tax, says campaigner Laura Coryton. 

Back in 2014, I started a petition against the ‘luxury’ tax rate we pay on period products, including tampons and sanitary pads. 

Before then, many (including me!) had never heard of the tampon tax. Yet for over 50 years we have been paying tax on period products.

That’s right: in 1973, a 17.5% tampon tax rate was introduced. Today, we still pay tax on period products, albeit at a reduced rate of 5% thanks to hero MP, Dawn Primarolo, who successfully campaigned to lessen the tax in 2001.

tampon tax period poverty
Tampon tax: “I decided to do something I had never done before, and started my own petition against tampon tax.”

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the tampon tax is its context. Our tax system is riddled with absurdities. While period products are taxed because they are considered ‘luxury goods’, other items escape tax altogether because they are more ‘essential’. 

These purchases include maintaining our private helicopters, eating exotic meats including crocodile and horse, and playing bingo, all of which enjoy a 0% tax rate. Now, I enjoy a good bingo game as much as the next woman, but surely we can all agree that period products are more ‘essential’ to our lives?

Five years ago, when I first discovered the sexism that riddles our tax system, I was confused. Then I got angry. Why were we all paying tax on period products when those who can afford private helicopters maintain them, tax free? I was gunning to sign a petition against the tax, having signed so many before, including Caroline Criado-Perez’s petition to keep Jane Austen on our banknotes. 

But I couldn’t find any campaigns relating to tampon tax. So I decided to do something I had never done before: I started my own petition.

Since then, a lot has changed. My petition gained the support of over 320,090 amazing people and together we pushed our tampon-tax-ending legislation through Westminster and the EU. 

In 2016, when we were still a member of the EU, David Cameron took our campaign to the European Union, which holds authority over all member states’ taxation legislation, and proposed an unprecedented motion. He argued that for the first time in EU history, the Union should let any member state reduce a specific tax to their lowest national rate if they want to. That was tampon tax! His motion passed with unanimous support. 

Now that Brexit has happened and we’ve left the EU, we need to act on the UK legislation which is set to axe tampon tax ‘as soon as legally possible’. 

So this week I started a new petition, calling on people to help me end tampon tax once and for all.

Tampon tax: what is the timeline of the fight to end the tax?

period poverty
Tampon tax: "Even Barack Obama commented on the tax in 2016, arguing that if politics was a more female-friendly sphere then we wouldn’t be dealing with gender discriminatory policies like the tampon tax."

Since my original petition, we have partnered with sister tampon tax petitions across the world. In 2015 we worked alongside Canadian activists, who spent six months planning the launch of their own tampon tax petition. When they launched it and presented their work to the Canadian Parliament, they won within just six months. That truly shows the power of online activism. 

Over the past two years, our sister petitions have won in places including India, Colombia and Canada. If you know anyone living in a country that has tampon tax, ask them to speak up. 

Even Barack Obama commented on the tax in 2016, arguing that if politics was a more female-friendly sphere then we wouldn’t be dealing with gender discriminatory policies like the tampon tax. For context, campaigners across the USA are currently fighting against tampon tax, which is implemented to varying degrees and is being campaigned against on a state-by-state basis. 

Now, we don’t want the government to forget about their tampon tax promises, or the legislation that we have worked so hard to push through. So, to keep conversations about periods and tampon tax alive, we started to speak up about other issues affected by the period taboo. 

The first was period poverty. In 2016, we launched our Homeless Period Project, which lobbied Bodyform and P&G, the creators of Tampax tampons and Always sanitary pads, to give their surplus stock to food banks and homeless shelters. After we successfully secured an agreed donation of 100,000 products, we started to wonder who else was effected by period poverty. That’s when teachers started to speak up about their concerns over students facing period poverty. 

Tampon tax: the decision to provide free sanitary products in schools

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Tampon tax: the provision of free products is a huge step forward for schoolgirls.

This issue eventually caught the attention of government ministers, as we have now seen. Last year, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced his spring statement. Within this, he set his mini-budget for the year and revealed a whole heap of funding allocations, including new investments in digital technologies across the country and a £717m investment in new houses in areas including West London, Cheshire, Didcot, and Cambridge.

But one of the most amazing details in Hammond’s statement, revealed at the end of his announcement, was his commitment to ending period poverty in our schools. He said that in response to “growing concern from head teachers over access to period products”, he would fund the provision of free period products in secondary schools and colleges across England from next year. This was huge, and has now been rolled out across the country.

While six years ago I thought the tampon tax was an isolated problem, we have since discovered that many aspects of our everyday lives are dominated by the taboo surrounding periods, which has also led to period poverty and to girls missing school as a result. The provision of free products is a huge step forward for schoolgirls, but also for anyone else who has ever campaigned against the period taboo and related topics including the tampon tax.

Research by charity Freedom4Girls has shown that 10% of schoolgirls miss school because they do not have access to period products. That’s more than 137,000 girls. 

This can happen for many reasons. Research from the Social Metrics Commission has showed that 14 million people, including 4.5 million children, are living in poverty here in the UK. Food banks use in the UK has reached the highest on record

Tampon tax: what needs to change?

period poverty in schools
Tampon tax: "The provision of free period products in schools and colleges across England will go a long way to ensuring girls simply have access to the vital period products they need."

Research has recently shown that 91% of schools are facing funding cuts. One girl I met last year, while I was giving a school talk on campaigning, told me that her school has just five bathrooms in total. None of these have toilet paper, let alone period products. They have nowhere to turn and often feel that nobody is listening to them. Hopefully that will now change.

The provision of free period products in schools and colleges across England will go a long way to ensuring girls simply have access to the vital period products they need to be able to go to school while on their periods. If girls can’t access period products at home, they will be able to find the products they desperately need at their schools.

This period poverty announcement is particularly amazing because it was lobbied for through the internet, with mainly women and girls speaking up online. Projects like the Red Box Project, which has campaigned to provide free period products to everyone who needs them for years, and Amika George who started a petition calling on the government to give free period products to girls on free school meals, spread their messages and demands online.

When we campaign together on issues that have held us back for generations, just like period poverty, we can make huge changes. Together we have secured a change that a few years ago seemed inconceivable: a solution to period poverty here in the UK, period.

Now, let’s take the next step and end the tampon tax, once and for all.

This piece was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated throughout

Images: Getty, Unsplash