By Mariana de la Roche, Chief Policy Officer and Nikki van de Veerdonk, Policy Fellow
This article provides an overview of the evolution of the tampon tax in European countries.
The tax on menstrual products, commonly known as the ‘tampon tax’ is a policy in which menstrual hygiene products are considered as a luxury item and consequently taxed at a higher rate than items deemed as a ‘necessary good’. Value-Added Taxes (VAT) on items classified as the latter are either reduced or in some cases exempt.
The tampon tax differentiates worldwide depending on national tax policies.
VAT on menstrual hygiene products is imposed in most countries of the world, with the exception of a few including Australia, Canada, Colombia, India, Ireland, Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa and Rwanda who have no import tax on menstrual products.
In their article ‘The Unconstitutional Tampon Tax’, Bridget Crawford and Emily Waldman address the argument that the tampon tax is a form of impermissible gender discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause. For them it is a discrimination because menstrual hygiene products are closely tied to female reproductive anatomy, therefore, the tax on menstrual products is discriminatory as it imposes an economic burden on a specific portion of the population (women, girls and those who menstruate) based on a biological function. The reasons why menstrual products have been classified as ‘luxury goods’ for decades are multi-faceted and often assigned to tax legislators being predominantly male, the stigma that surrounds menstruation or the existence of gender-differentiated taxes as a form of discrimination.
Tireless work of progressive activism in the past decade bore fruit and resulted in policy changes that allow tax reductions on menstrual products down up to 0% VAT for European Union (EU) member states. However, the VAT rate on menstrual products in almost half of the 27 EU member states is still over 20% with no direct prospect of change in the near future.
Europe as a region is a particularly interesting case study where, even though each country has the autonomy to decide how much taxes their citizens will pay and how those taxes will be expended, the EU in some cases oversees the national tax laws with the purpose of allowing goods and services to be traded freely across European country borders.
Finding information about taxation in the EU is not a challenge, as there are several platforms available such as the Trade Helpdesk or the Taxes in Europe Database (TEDB) where people can find information about the sales taxes per country.
This is not the case in other regions, where the absence of information is one of the major challenges in trying to understand social dynamics and generate base lines for interventions. Particularly in countries located in Asia and Africa, information on sales taxes is especially difficult to obtain. This is due to a variety of factors, including governments not differentiating between medical supply and menstrual hygiene products, not specifically mentioning sanitary products when attributing taxations or simply overall insufficient descriptive information of VAT regulations in the country.
History of taxes on menstrual products in Europe
Within Europe, taxation on menstrual hygiene products is not uniformly established: there are general regulations on VAT that are applicable within the EU, but the concrete implementation, as with any other kind of taxes, is a matter of the respective countries.
Since 2007, the European Union allowed countries to amend the sales taxes on sanitary products to a reduced specified minimum between 5% and 15%. This meant that member States were free to depart from standard sales tax rates and apply this lowest possible rate to menstrual hygiene products. Charging a 0% sales tax rate to these products was however not allowed within this framework.
This inability to further reduce the tax on sanitary products caused an uproar in the UK before the Brexit referendum in 2016. Discussions in the British Parliament on whether to apply a 0% VAT on menstrual products were shut down due to the then EU ban on expanding the list of VAT-free goods. This was used as an argument in favour of Brexit as it was described and understood as an example of “EU paternalism system”, and as an alternative the British parliament decided that a portion of the taxes collected through the VAT on menstrual products would be allocated to women’s support groups.
As a response to the uproar in the UK, the European Commission announced its intention to give member States more freedom in changing the VAT on certain products themselves. This became possible in March 2016, when 28 country leaders of the European Commission (which has to approve reductions in VAT rates to levels below 15%) unanimously voted in favour of allowing member States to have more flexibility on reducing the VAT on goods with a special provision and to the possibility to get rid of the VAT on sanitary products. In practice, this does not mean that member States are forced to impose zero VAT to those products, but that it is up to the individual member States to decide how much VAT they want to impose on sanitary products (including menstrual hygiene products). However, four years after this decision, many countries have not lowered their tax rates.
VAT rates on menstrual products in Europe
The taxation on menstrual products varies across Europe, with Hungary exhibiting the highest rate of 27% and Ireland being the only country in Europe thus far that has no tax on menstrual products. The added tax in all other European countries lays in- between these rates, and for almost half of all EU member States the tax for menstrual products is equal to the tax for luxury items.
In the last few years, several countries in Europe have decided to reduce their VAT on menstrual products. Among these countries are:
- France, from 20% to 5,5% in 2015
- Belgium from 20% to 6% in 2018
- In Switzerland to go from 7,7% to 2,5% in 2019, and
- In Spain to go from 10% to 4% in 2019.
Although significant progress has been made in the last decade since the EU allowed more flexibility in reducing VAT rates, the VAT rate on menstrual products in almost half of the 27 EU member states is still over 20%.
The current VAT on menstrual hygiene products (sanitary towels and tampons) in members States of the European Union is:
Country / VAT on menstrual hygiene products:
Hungary / 27%
Croatia / 25%
Denmark / 25%
Sweden / 25%
Finland / 24%
Greece / 23%
Italy / 22%
Czech Republic / 21%
Latvia / 21%
Lituania / 21%
Bulgaria / 20%
Romania / 19%
Luxembourg / 17%
Austria / 10%
Slovakia / 10%
Spain / 10%
Slovenia / 9,5%
Estonia / 9%
Poland / 8%
Germany / 7%
Belgium / 6%
The Netherlands / 6%
Portugal / 6%
France / 5,5%
The VAT rate on menstrual products in the 24 countries located in the continent of Europe that are not part of the European Union shows the same differentiating numbers, considering for example a 25% VAT in Norway, 24% VAT in Iceland and 17% VAT in Moldova.
Changes in VAT rates on menstrual products in the past 50 years in several countries show a strong impermanence of rating policies. For instance, there is currently a 5% VAT rate on menstrual products in the UK (part of the EU until Brexit). When joining the European Economic Community in 1973, the country had a standard 10% rate. This was brought down to 8% in 1974, then raised again to 15% in 1979 and again to 17,5% in 1991 before finally reducing the VAT to 5% in 2001. Increased activism in many of the mentioned countries in the past years focusing on the tampon tax makes it unlikely for the politician to raise the tax again, but it is important to keep foregoing fluctuating rate levels in mind.
Efforts made in the last couple of years by numerous countries in Europe to reduce or abolish the tampon tax are part of a bigger agenda: to reduce or abolish discrimination on the basis of gender. This is often interlinked with other proposals, such as free distribution of menstrual products in public spaces, redistributing tax credits or including menstrual products as benefits in welfare programs. Advocating for a reduction or abolishment of the tampon tax as a matter of violation of equal protection and fairness can be a starting point to changes in the grand scheme of gender equality and menstrual equity.
The latest example of this effort has been in Germany where, Nanna-Josephine Roloff and Yasemin Kotra, German activists, initiated a petition in 2019 to reduce the tampon tax in Germany. The petition received more than 190.000 signatures at which point, after 4 years of campaigning, German Finance Minister and Social Democrat Olaf Scholz met with the Roloff and Kotra and was convinced to reduce the tax from 19% to 7%. The reduction came into play January 1st, 2020.