With its brightly coloured, patterned wrapper, the Compak [sic] Pearl sitting in front of me looks rather ritzy. Inside the easy-open pouch nestles a metallic blue plastic casing which is embossed at one end (dubbed by its makers an “Anti-Slip Grip”). This can smoothly click into place, ready for what’s inside – namely, a bullet of rayon, cotton and polyethylene – to be deployed, well, inside.
Tampons have come a long way from the paper-wrapped, cardboard-encased cotton sausages that I first encountered as a teenager 20 years ago, and a hell of a way since the wads of softened papyrus used by menstruating ancient Egyptians. A friend who wandered by my desk thought that I was waving around a hi-tech vaping device rather than a blood guard. But are tampons luxuries?
According to the EU they are, which means that VAT is applied to them – and yesterday, a group of Labour and rebel Tory MPs called on David Cameron to negotiate down the tax on tampons and other sanitary products to zero. But it’s far from the first time that the topic has caused people to see red. In 2001, the level of VAT on tampons and sanitary towels was cut from 17.5 per cent to its current five per cent, thanks in large part to the efforts of the then-Labour MP Christine McCafferty, who campaigned for two years before the change came into force.
Today, the activists behind Bloody Disgrace (www.bloodydisgrace.org) continue to carry the flag for reducing tax on tampons via the campaign’s eye-wateringly bright home page, where links to online petitions jostle with FAQs and startling facts (“In the UK crocodile meat is considered an essential. Tampons are not”). According to the site’s calculator, as a 35-year-old menstruator, I have spent the equivalent cost of 186 tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on surfing the crimson tide. By next year, my Compak Pearls habit will have cost me two pairs of Louboutin shoes or 20 Pandora charms. Comparing the price of “luxury” sanitary products with more traditional extravagances (designer shoes! mid-range jewels!) strikes me as a cutesy concept, but it’s made me think about the real financial loss I’ve suffered since puberty.
Of course, my tampon of choice is at the bells-and-whistles end of the market, costing £3.15 for 18 (not quite enough to get me through a monthly cycle, FYI), and there are cheaper alternatives out there, such as a pack of 30 Boots’ own-brand applicator tampons for £1.99. But for some women, even two pounds per period is unaffordable. Earlier this year, student Elsa Vulliamy set up the Tampon Drive in Sheffield after visiting homeless shelters and women’s refuges, asking what donations would be most useful.
“At the shelters I went to, they said that tampons aren’t donated often because they’re so expensive. Two women said that they had stolen tampons in the past because of the costs,” she says. “They were risking being arrested.”
Vulliamy and a group of friends collected donations for three days before handing over “a ton” of sanitary products. “Tampons are definitely not a luxury, they’re a necessity that almost half the population uses.” If the other half of the population needed them, presumably they’d be deemed essential.
Still, tampons aren’t the only item to be hit with an apparently arbitrary ruling on VAT. (If someone could explain to me why mobility aids for the elderly get taxed at five per cent while lottery tickets are exempt, or why children’s car seats are five per cent and cycle helmets zero, I’m all ears.) But it adds insult to expense to label them a luxury.
Some might come in fancy wrappers with aerodynamic applicators, but whatever they look like, they’re bloody well essential.
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