British women hold demonstration to protest tax on tampons

Women — and men — in England are fed up with the tax on tampons

What do kangaroo meat, alcoholic jelly and helicopters have in common?

They’re all exempt from taxes in the U.K.–and their tax-free status has become a lightning rod for women (and men) who think another product belongs on that list: tampons.

More than 200,000 have signed an online petition asking George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (similar to the the Secretary of the Treasury in the U.S.), to make tampons and pads tax-free. Laura Coryton, 22, started the petition last year while still a student at Goldsmiths University in London.

The U.K. government introduced a 17.5 percent tax on tampons and pads in 1973; in 2001, it was lowered to five percent, thanks to a campaign led by Labour MP Dawn Primarolo.

Coryton and her fellow activists have managed to elicit some responses from politicians, including support from Primarolo and another Labour MP, Stella Creasy. But Prime Minister David Cameron believes their efforts are misplaced: He’s said this is an issue that should be taken up with the EU, not the U.K. government. The British government can’t change tax laws without cooperation from all 28 states of the European Union.

Last week, about a hundred protesters marched in front of the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, shouting slogans like “Stop taxing our bloody tampons.” Some dressed up in blood-stained underwear or red face paint, or carried massive replicas of sanitary products. (“The bigger the effect the bigger our impact,” at least according to the protest organizers.”)

“Women shouldn’t feel like this is an unnatural process, because its not,” said Vanessa, an administrative assistant in London. “I’m here today because our government apparently thinks that having a period is a luxury,” said India, who travelled to the march from North Wales.

People tend to think of access to sanitary products as a “third-world problem”–but tampons are prohibitively expensive for many women in the West. “It can be very expensive, especially if you’re a mother of daughters who are coming into puberty,” said Marjorie, a retired nurse from Hayes. Women trying to save money on tampons could even put themselves at risk for toxic shock syndrome. “Tampons are so expensive and they say you shouldn’t wear them for more than four hours,” said Emily, a gap-year student. “But I wouldn’t be able to afford that many tampons. It’s a lot of money.”

By the standards of some other European countries, the UK’s tampon tax is practically generous. Sanitary products are taxed at 20 percent in France and 27 percent in Hungary. (In the U.S., tampon tax is a state-by-state issue; sanitary products are tax-free in some states, like Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but are subject to tax in many others, including California and New York.) Activists in Canada, where tampons are taxed at rate of five percent, have launched a similar petition that’s accrued over 62,000 signatures in its first two months. Maybe getting support from the rest of the EU isn’t such a far-fetched goal. The tax-free tampon movement may be catching on.

It shouldn’t be that hard for tampons to catch a break in the U.K.: At least some members of the British leadership are very fond of them. In 1992, Prince Charles was famously caught telling his then-mistress Camilla he wanted to be her tampon.

Georgie Johnson and Katy Fallon contributed reporting from London.

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