Tampons to Be Taxed as Essential, Not Luxury, Items in Germany

BERLIN — Long classified in Germany as “luxury goods” taxed at the highest possible rate, tampons, pads and other menstrual products will soon join bread, books and cut flowers on the list of items considered “necessary for everyday life.”

The change, set to take effect on Jan. 1, will reduce the tax on menstrual products to 7 percent from 19 percent. Parliament passed the law last week, as a campaign to reduce the high taxes on period products spread across the globe.

While 75 percent of all items considered essential in Germany — and therefore taxed at the lower rate — are foodstuffs, the category also includes other, less obvious products.

Cut flowers, books and newspapers, paintings, collectible coins, and theater tickets are also on the list. European Union regulations dictate that certain items cannot be taxed at a lower rate, but menstrual products are not among them, so two German women took the issue into their own hands.

“The higher tax rate on these products amounts to fiscal discrimination of women, based on their sex, which is not allowed by the Constitution,” Nanna-Josephine Roloff and Yasemin Kotra, who started the movement in Germany, wrote on their petition launched on International Women’s Day in 2018.

By the end of that year, they had gathered 100,000 signatures — including from many men who had expressed support — and began lobbying politicians in Berlin, Ms. Roloff said in a telephone interview.

She said that many lawmakers were initially reluctant to support the proposed change, or even to return their calls. Those who did agree to speak with them often came up with excuses why change was impossible.

“We heard that they couldn’t do anything because it wasn’t in the contract drawn up by the governing coalition,” Ms. Roloff said, “that such a change would cause the whole tax system to collapse and that financial policies are not there to ensure equality in the tax code.”

On the advice of Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a co-founder of the United States-based nonprofit Period Equity, the women shifted their focus to conservative politicians in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, and their partners in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union.

In June, the parties put out a joint statement that the higher tax rate for menstrual products “is not justified through context or the tax code” and argued for lowering it.

“That was the breakthrough,” Ms. Roloff said.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz met the women in October and thanked them for starting the initiative before voicing his support for lowering the so-called tampon tax.

The last week, Parliament approved the change. It has already been incorporated into the German tax code and is to take effect on Jan. 1, bringing Germany in line with several other countries around the world.

Kenya was the first nation to stop taxing menstrual products in 2004, in part because millions of women and girls in the country could not afford these products. Canada dropped its tax in 2015, and Australia, India and Malaysia followed suit in 2018.

In Europe, Britain, France and Luxembourg have also decreased taxes on such products. Women in Denmark and Sweden still pay a 25 percent tax on tampons and sanitary pads, according to data gathered by the Civico Foundation in Spain, while in Hungary, women pay 27 percent, despite European Union regulations that stipulate tax on menstrual products can be as low as 5 percent.

In the United States, menstrual products are subject to sales tax in 35 states, although 22 states are considering legislation to eliminate the tax. Nearly a dozen states have already eliminated it.

Ms. Roloff said that she and Ms. Kotra would have to monitor whether prices dropped once the change takes effect in January, but added that she hoped their success would raise awareness that the campaign was not just about the price of period products.

“We wanted to show that discrimination is deeply ingrained in places like the financial system,” she said. “But that it is possible to change it.”

Next, they would like to see menstrual products provided for free to women and girls in public institutions, including schools, hospitals, prisons and municipal office buildings.

“People aren’t expected to run around with toilet paper,” she said. “We think period products should be given an equal status.”

Except when it comes to taxation, that is. Toilet paper still falls under the standard rate.