Skip to main content

If you buy an eight-pack of Pizza Pockets they will not be taxed. But if you buy a 10-pack of Tampax tampons, they will be.

Which is a necessity and which is a luxury? Which one is a health product?

The campaign to remove the federal goods and services tax on menstrual products, dubbed No Tax on Tampons, is focusing attention on one particularly sexist and illogical tax rule.

To date, the petition, which calls on federal Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay to amend the Excise Tax Act to exempt menstruation-related products from taxation, has garnered close to 60,000 signatures. There are also similar efforts under way in the U.K. – where the tampon tax has fallen from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent – and Australia.

What these efforts all have in common is their use of humour – and blood puns in particular – to grab attention. "A tax that cramps my style," and "Pull the plug on the tampon tax," are just a couple of examples.

But they should also lead us to wonder, more broadly, what is taxed and why.

In Canada, we have income taxes – the taxation of individuals' income and corporations' profits. Those taxes are supposed to be progressive, meaning the wealthy pay more than the poor – which is increasingly true in theory more than in practice, but that's a subject for another day.

We also have two principal consumption taxes, the 5 per cent federal goods and services tax (GST) and provincial sales taxes, which range from zero in Alberta to 9.975 per cent in Quebec. Increasingly, however, these taxes are harmonized so consumers pay one tax – like the 13 per cent harmonized sales tax in Ontario – and then the spoils are divvied up between Ottawa and the province.

Both federal and provincial tax laws have a number of exemptions. Generally speaking, the philosophy is that basic needs like food and medical supplies should not be taxed.

Of course, drawing these distinctions can get complicated.

The good news – sort of – is that the details are spelled out in the Excise Tax Act, specifically schedule VI, which lists "zero-rated supplies" (those that are not taxed).

This is the part of the law that has raised the ire of the No Tax on Tampons campaign, and which NDP MP Irene Mathyssen has targeted for change, and rightly so. Over the years, exemptions have been added and removed to cater to special interest groups and to give breaks to needy groups but, taken as a whole, the law sometimes seem incoherent.

For example, the GST is not charged on human sperm, cocktail cherries and chocolate chips, but it is charged on products like tampons, sanitary pads and menstrual cups.

In fact, the law implies that these products are cosmetic rather than medical necessities. Yet, other medical products like incontinence pads, prescription drugs and hearing aids are exempt from the GST.

This may seem like a marginal issue in the multibillion-dollar tax collection business, but it is not a trivial one for individuals and families.

Women of reproductive age use, on average 20 tampons per period, or 240 a year and roughly 9,600 during a lifetime.

Menstrual products, especially disposable ones, are expensive.

The No Tax on Tampons campaign estimates that Canadians spend about $520-million a year on menstrual products. That means the federal government collects in excess of $36-million in combined taxes on these products. To make matters even more complicated, menstrual products are taxed federally, but not by all provinces. Again, the logic is illusive.

There are those who will argue that paying a 5 per cent tax on a box of tampons is not going to break the bank. Invariably, someone will make the argument that toilet paper is taxed, so …

But menstrual products are used by only one sex (and to be precise, by some transgender people): It is probably the only example of sex-based taxation of a necessary – not luxury – good.

The tax is also an additional hardship for low-income women. (As an aside, it's worth noting that food banks distribute tampons and pads but they are consistently in short supply, so they have to be rationed. In addition to canned goods, people should donate hygienic products.)

The rallying cry of the No Tax on Tampon campaign is that there should be: "No tax on periods. Period."

They're right and, to borrow one of their clever puns, there should be "no womb for debate" on the issue.

Eds  note: Due to an editing error, a Tuesday opinion column on the tax on tampons incorrectly suggested menstrual products are used by some transgender women. It should have said by some transgender people.