In mid-January, YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen broached the subject of tampons with President Obama.
"Recently I was shocked to learn that pads, tampons, and other menstrual products are taxed as luxury goods in 40 states," Nilsen said. She was referring to an idea that has since swept the nation: while most medically necessary items, like prescription drugs or walkers, are exempt from sales tax, tampons and their ilk continue to be taxed. Obama, appearing slightly nonplussed by an issue he said he hadn't heard about before, encouraged women to fight the tax.
"I think it's pretty sensible for women in those states where you just mentioned to work to get those taxes removed," Obama said. "Those aren't federal taxes that are imposed; those are state taxes, state laws. It would be governors and state legislators who would have to reverse those."
On Wednesday, two Chicago aldermen took up Obama's call, and proposed rescinding the city's "unfair tampon tax."
The ordinance, introduced by aldermen Ed Burke and Leslie Hairston, would exempt feminine hygiene products from taxes in Chicago, reclassifying them as "medical appliances." The aldermen also proposed lowering the tax to 1 percent throughout Illinois, the tax rate currently imposed on drugs, food, and medical appliances.
"This tax only affects women. Is that fair?" Burke said in a statement. "These are not luxury items, and Chicago needs to lead the way in eliminating this unfair tax."
Currently pads and tampons in the city are taxed at the rate of 10.25 percent, which includes a 6.25 percent state tax, a 1.75 percent county tax, a 1.25 percent city tax, and a 1 percent Regional Transportation Authority tax.
"Removing the tax in Chicago and lowering it in Illinois would help to make these products more affordable to women, especially poor women," Hairston said in a statement.
The idea of eliminating the "tampon tax" has spread swiftly, spawning indignant op-eds and an online petition with more than 50,000 signatures. Bills to exempt tampons from taxes have been introduced in New York, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, and California.
But some critics contend that the widespread ire against the "tampon tax" is misplaced. Catherine Rampell, an opinion writer for the Washington Post, argues that even the term "tampon tax" is misleading, since tampons are not specifically targeted for taxes (as alcohol might be) but instead included in a general sales tax, applied to most goods. She goes on to describe how dozens of special-interest groups have attempted to legally define their products as "necessary" in order to exempt them from sales taxes; in California, products ranging from commemorative lapel pins to racehorse breeding stock are tax exempt. Rampell maintains that this only raises the tax rates on other goods, increasing the incentive for special-interest groups to lobby on behalf of a product-specific tax exemption.
"A better way to address the regressivity of sales taxes is to just increase cash transfers to the poor—or to whichever group you think needs money the most," Rampell writes. (This proposal garnered comments like "You are off your rocker" and "Your dishonesty is patent.")
The aldermen's proposal in Chicago is now headed to the finance committee for consideration. The best-case scenario for passage is that the proposal will move quickly through the committee and be passed into law at the next council meeting on March 16, according to a spokesperson for Burke. At the earliest, the bill would go into effect in mid-April.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already signed on, according to DNAinfo. "I think it's the right thing to do, an appropriate thing for us to look at," he said.