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Abolishing the 'tampon tax' is a politically-motivated response to special pleading

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Friday, 12 October 2018


Early this month State Treasurers agreed to support the Federal Government's proposal to remove the Goods and Services Tax (GST) from women's sanitary products by January 1, 2019.

Taxing sanitary items has long been described by women's advocates as unfair (e.g. "Don't tax my period") because "other health products including condoms and Viagra are exempt". Treasurer Frydenberg recently said the agreement was "good news for women across Australia" and noted that many had been campaigning for the change for years. "Common sense has prevailed and this reform, led by the Federal Government, is long overdue" he said.

The Labor Party had pledged to abolish the GST on tampons, if it wins power. The Party had long argued that the tax should never have been applied in the first place, because sanitary products are "a necessary for reproductive health and not a luxury item". Meanwhile the Greens had also strongly protested against the tax, notably in a demonstration outside Parliament House.

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Given all the fuss about removing the GST from tampons and other feminine hygiene products, I decided out of curiosity to look up how much the tax on such products had been costing women. According to the Household Expenditure Survey for 2015-16 the average couple family with dependent children had an average weekly spend of just $1.01 on feminine hygiene products. Dividing by 11 suggests a GST element of just 9.18 cents a week per family - hardly a noticeable impost or worth making an issue about. (The figures are age sensitive since women of child-bearing age are the main users. Higher income households also spend more on such products than those on low incomes.)

In respect of GST exemptions for some other products, I have some sympathy for the argument that (on principle) exempting razor blades from the GST is an anomaly. (As a bearded male I can attest to the fact that razor blades are not a necessity, and are normally used for cosmetic rather than health reasons.) The obvious solution is to get rid of this exemption on equity grounds rather than add a new one.

There are a number of other "hard cases", mostly related to what is or is not included in categories of GST exemptions (particularly "certain health goods" and " certain drugs and medicinal preparations").

One issue is that toilet paper is subject to GST despite being a hygiene product. Australian households apparently spend about $2 a week on toilet paper (about double their spend on feminine hygiene). I am surprised that women's lobbyists failed to focus on this, particularly because females are widely believed to be far greater users of toilet tissue. A gender issue missed?

Of course it is possible to survive without toilet paper. Many less affluent households in the past used newspaper, and in the bush it is not unknown for cockies to resort to a bit of pasture to do the needy!

Incontinence aids, including pads and adult nappies, are already exempt from the GST. Babies nappies, however, are subject to the GST. Now that feminine sanitary pads will be GST-free along with incontinence pads, it gets difficult to argue for not exempting babies nappies. A case of reverse ageism, and discrimination against parents of young children?

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When it comes to (GST-free) condoms and incontinence pads, they're classified as health goods, while Viagra falls within the exemption category "certain drugs and medicinal preparations". The semantics involve incontinence pads being considered medical aids, while menstruation isn't regarded as an illness or a disability - resulting in tampons (to date) being taxable. The argument for nappies attracting GST is that, if a baby wets itself, that's considered normal. If an adult has continence issues, however, that's considered a medical condition.

Even though it is generally men that buy condoms, one would think that the hygiene and contraceptive impacts benefit both men and women, so that you would not expect the latter to be complaining about their non-taxation. Not so long ago female AIDS campaigners pushed the slogan "if it's not on, it's not on".

Another common claim is that tampons should be exempt on the basis that they're necessities. There is merit in this argument in respect of today's world. This was not so in the past, when cloth or reusable pads (sometimes home-made) were widely used. Even after disposable pads were commercially available, for some years they were too expensive for many women to afford. In many developing countries, reusable or makeshift pads are apparently still the norm.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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