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Tampon, formula shortage ‘feels like a war on women’

A shelf at a Safeway pharmacy on Alahambra Boulevard in Sacramento, Calif., shows few tampon boxes on June 15 as the U.S. is facing another shortage.  (Lucy Hodgman/The Sacramento Bee)
By Brittany Shammas and Lateshia Beachum Washington Post

First, Dana Marlowe noticed a drop-off in donations to her nonprofit, which distributes free menstrual products to women and girls.

Then came a spike in phone calls and messages - all from people unable to find the products they needed. Marlowe scrolled through them as she left her warehouse, stopping to read one out loud.

“I just bled through my pants and had to run to three different stores to find tampons,” said the message sent to her organization, I Support the Girls. “This is absolutely awful and I have no words.”

Tampons have in recent weeks become the latest product to fall victim to supply chain woes, making something that is essential to many Americans increasingly sparse on store shelves. And the nonprofits that have sprung up to fight period poverty are now struggling to fill the gap.

To some women, still reeling from the baby formula shortage gripping the nation, it feels like an onslaught. Adding to their exasperation is the looming Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. A leaked draft heightened expectations that the nationwide right to an abortion established nearly 50 years ago could be in its final days. The ruling is expected soon, as the Supreme Court typically goes into recess in late June or early July.

If Roe is overturned, abortion could become illegal in half of the United States, and far-reaching effects on reproductive care could follow.

“I’m so frustrated that there’s a tampon shortage going on when there’s so many other things going on for people concurrently,” said Marlowe, of Silver Spring, Md. “This is on the heels of the baby formula shortage, so how many messages do you think I get every few hours? This feels like a war on women.”

Where they can be found, tampons now carry higher price tags - a frustration compounded by the fact they are not tax exempt in most states. The shortage does not appear to extend to pads, though their prices have increased, too.

On Amazon, some boxes of tampons were listed by third-party sellers at prices as high as $59. A spokesperson said in a statement that Amazon continuously assesses the fairness of prices.

“We continuously compare the prices submitted by our selling partners with current and historic prices inside and outside our store to determine if prices are fair,” the statement said. “If we identify a price that violates our policy, we remove the offer and take appropriate action with the seller.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The exact impact the Roe decision will have on the accessibility and price of reproductive care is difficult to predict, experts said. But they say abortions are expected to become increasingly expensive, with patients in many states forced to travel for the procedure.

For those without paid leave, the costs will be even higher. One estimate from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research puts the cost of existing state-level abortion restrictions at $105 billion a year due to reduced labor force participation, increased turnover and time off.

There’s also concern among some about potential ripple effects on another area of reproductive health care: contraceptives. Already, some states are pursuing laws that would define pregnancy as beginning at the moment of fertilization, which experts say could call into question the legality of emergency contraceptives such as the morning-after pill and some types of intrauterine devices, or IUDs.

Clinics in the states where abortion will remain legal even if the Supreme Court reverses Roe could see a flood of patients from the 26 states where it is likely to be banned, limiting their ability to offer other types of care. Demand might go up for some types of contraceptives or reproductive services. Or they could become more difficult to access in some states.

“We don’t know,” said Megan Kavanaugh, a researcher with the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research center that supports abortion rights. “We don’t have the evidence until it actually happens.”

To some, one thing is already clear: women are shouldering a heavier economic burden.

Diamond Cotton, a single mother of three living in Indianapolis who receives food assistance benefits, said the higher prices on tampons has hit her family hard. She has a preteen and a teen daughter who also need tampons, and she typically sticks to the store brands.

But in recent weeks, they’ve been several dollars more expensive per box. And sometimes only brand names are available, forcing her to dig deeper into her pocket.

“I’m already trying to make sure that our bills are paid, but now I got to come up with the extra $10 to $15 to buy tampons,” said Cotton, 32. She added: “If I can even find them.”

At Scribner-Snyder Community Schools, a small public district in rural Dodge County, Neb., where 68% of the student body is considered economically disadvantaged, more students than ever before asked guidance counselor Leah Fischer for tampons as the 2021-22 school year came to an end. The products in the bathrooms cost 25 cents - an amount she said can add up in her population of students.

“With our low-income population, they have to prioritize their needs - gas and getting to work and things like that,” Fischer said. “It’s going to make it more difficult for our families to take care of that necessity.”

School district superintendents may meet this summer to discuss budgeting menstrual products for students, said Megan Reese, a community liaison who works with 16 school districts in the area. If they don’t come to an agreement, Reese said she’s considering holding a community drive. She plans to make the case that “schools already provide toilet paper and paper towels - why don’t they provide tampons?”

Long before the current shortage, a number of nonprofit organizations sprung up around the country to help provide menstrual products for those who are low income, in school, homeless or incarcerated. But now those groups are struggling to provide help amid the shortage.

Portland, Ore.-based PERIOD. gave out 3.7 million pieces of menstrual products to schools, shelters, churches and other organizations in 2020, said service manager Kate Barker Swindell. That number fell to 1.3 million in 2021. So far this year, the organization has only been able to give 212,000 items, after donations from large manufactures slowed dramatically.

“We have a waiting list which has been closed since the end of April,” Barker Swindell said. “I think at this point it’s over 550 organizations. It’s just way too much, and it’s really awful to continuously take names and information and say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have anything.’ “

The supply of tampons in the U.S. is “very consolidated,” said Jamie Rosenberg, associate director of global household and personal care for researcher Mintel Group. There are just two primary manufacturers: Procter and Gamble, and Kimberly Clark.

The supply chains are global and subject to snarls including labor shortages and pandemic-induced disruptions, Rosenberg said. And while people may view a tampon as a simple product, he said, they rely upon complex, globally interconnected supply chains. Some brands use cotton, for instance, which requires fertilizer. Russia is one of the world’s major fertilizer producers; its invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global trade.

“It’s been a perfect storm of supply chain disaster that’s constraining the delivery of these products,” Rosenberg said.

For Marlowe of I Support the Girls, that constrained delivery means “our shelves are bare.” The nonprofit has been able to donate half its normal output in the first six months of this year - 218,000 tampons. And, like PERIOD., it has a lengthy wait list of organizations in need.

I Support the Girls’ affiliates across the country have told Marlowe of picked-over feminine care aisles in cities from Denver to Racine, Wis., to New York City. Her inbox is now so full she’s having trouble receiving messages.

“We kind of expect to be able to go into our stores and find the products we need,” Marlowe said. “It just feels like we’re getting hit at all ends.”

She added: “It’s looking pretty lousy to be a woman in the U.S. in the year 2022.”