SALT LAKE CITY — Menstrual hygiene products will soon be available for free in certain Salt Lake City buildings, thanks to a pilot program approved by the city council last week.
With its $20,000 program, Utah's capital city joins a number of other cities across the country in offering tampons and sanitary pads at no cost in public facility restrooms.
Supporters of the Salt Lake initiative say they hope it will make necessary medical items more accessible to local women — particularly those who can't easily afford them — and advance a broader conversation about the accessibility of feminine hygiene products in Utah.
"We're pushing the envelope a little bit, one tampon at a time," said Council Member Amy Fowler, who co-sponsored the proposal with Council Members Erin Mendenhall and Ana Valedemoros.
"We shouldn’t be charging women and people who menstruate for this very essential and necessary hygiene product," Fowler said. "And as per all discrimination, it disproportionately affects people from a lower socioeconomic status."
A study published earlier this year in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that two-thirds of low-income women in St. Louis, Mo., were unable to afford needed menstrual hygiene supplies. The study was cited by the Salt Lake City Council in a statement Tuesday.
As awareness grows of the barriers some women face in accessing menstrual products, several cities across the United States — from New York City to Brookline, Mass., to Montebello, Calif. — have introduced initiatives similar to Salt Lake's in recent years. And a handful of states, including New York, have passed laws requiring schools or prisons to provide menstrual products at no cost.
"As women in this digital world, it’s not often we have a quarter in our pockets anymore," Mendenhall said, referencing the current 25-cent price of tampons in City Hall restrooms. "The idea that we could be caught … unprepared for the need of such a product is not something that any woman or girl should have to face."
It's not known yet exactly how Salt Lake City's pilot program will be implemented, but the intention is for the $20,000 in funding to cover all city buildings, including City Hall and every city library branch, according to Mendenhall. The council is also encouraging city enterprise funds — including airport, public utilities, and golf — to consider the initiative. The city will track and analyze the program in its pilot year to determine whether and how it might be implemented again in the future.
The initial proposal asked for $10,000 in funding to put free hygiene products at City Hall and the main branch of the city library; Council Chair Charlie Luke then doubled the original budget suggestion.
Utah Women's Coalition policy director Akela Bellazetin praised the initiative as "great news and a step forward" for the city and state.
"I think putting anything in place that makes Utah families’ lives easier, whether that be childcare or something as seemingly meaningless as hygiene supplies, is going to pay back in full," Bellazetin said. "Hopefully they see the benefits and other (cities and counties) can jump on board."
That other cities, counties and institutions will jump on board is a goal of the initiative's sponsors. The council members would especially like to see the program expanded to the Salt Lake City School District and the county jail, Mendenhall said.
Fowler said she also sees the city's effort as linked to a push at the state level to eliminate the sales tax on tampons and sanitary pads. Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna, has in multiple recent legislative sessions unsuccessfully introduced a bill that would exempt menstrual products and diapers from Utah's sales tax.
Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, said that while she doesn't foresee the Utah Legislature eliminating the so-called "tampon tax" anytime soon, she hopes the Salt Lake City initiative eases some of the "discomfort" she sees around similar discussions in the statehouse.
"I think cities kind of spearheading this and taking the lead is really the right place for it to start," Pitcher said.