Originally published in Common Dreams.
Have you had a hard time finding tampons recently? You’re not alone. Tampons have been more difficult to come by in recent months especially if you live in certain states, like West Virginia, or have a preferred brand, which many people do. With headlines about tampon shortages, many are looking for answers.
Like businesses in other industries, Procter & Gamble—which owns Tampax, America’s most popular tampon brand—has blamed rising prices on supply chain challenges and rising costs for raw materials, like cotton. But this appears to be only partially true.
Smaller brands, such as LOLA, say they haven’t experienced product shortages or raised their prices since the pandemic began. Kotex—the third most popular brand—has reported the same. Supply chain issues are undeniably part of the problem. But Procter & Gamble has been consistently raising prices for years. In October 2018, the company raised prices, citing increases in costs for raw materials, even though the company’s sales and profits were both sky high.
Even so, Procter & Gamble plans to hike prices again late this fall. Meanwhile, media coverage of the so-called tampon shortage is driving up sales.
This situation exposes a glaring truth: Access to menstrual products and other basic necessities is too important to the wellbeing of our society to leave up to corporations. We should use this opportunity to start treating menstrual products like what they are: a public good.
Price increases for essential goods are tolerated by consumers not because they can afford them, but because they cannot go without basics like tampons, diapers, toilet paper, and toothpaste (all products sold by Procter & Gamble brands, by the way). While everyday people struggle to make ends meet, corporations like Procter & Gamble pull in massive profits, much of which is funneled to shareholders through stock buybacks. Procter & Gamble’s CEO pocketed $24 million in 2021, while the company’s median employee earns about $70,000 per year.
Price increases for basic necessities like tampons have a real cost. A study of low-income women in St. Louis, Missouri, found that nearly half could not afford both menstrual products and food in the previous year. Many of the women had to make due with rags or paper towels, which increases the risk of infection. Another study found that 10 percent of the college-aged participants could not afford the menstrual products they needed. Lack of access has been linked to higher anxiety and depression. According to Alliance for Period Supplies, one in four teens has missed class because they lacked access to menstrual products.
Period poverty—the lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints—is a public health crisis deserving of a coordinated response that profit-driven private corporations are neither motivated nor prepared to provide.
Advocates have been pushing policymakers to expand access to tampons and other menstrual products for decades, and have made important strides. Roughly half of states no longer apply sales tax to tampons. The CARES Act included a provision that allows consumers to buy tampons and pads with pre-tax Flexible Spending Accounts. A variety of bills designed to advance menstrual equity have been passed in states in recent years.
Yet, there is more work to be done. All students should have access to free menstrual products at school. Tampons and pads should be as commonplace in public restrooms as toilet paper. Scotland recently became the first country to offer menstrual products to anyone who needs them free of cost. The U.S. should follow suit.
We must also ask ourselves why we have supply chains that are so vulnerable to price shocks. We need resilient supply chains that can be relied on to get basic necessities into the hands of the people who need them—and that will surely require public investment and accountability for powerful corporations.