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There's a tampon shortage

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

First it was toilet paper. Later, baby formula. And now there's a shortage of tampons. The latest supply chain problem has forced some women to go from store to store to find what they need or pay higher prices for what's available. We wanted to understand what's causing the shortage, so we've called Chabeli Carrazana. She's an economy reporter for The 19th and she's been writing about this issue. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHABELI CARRAZANA: Well, thank you so much for having me.

FLORIDO: To start us off, can you tell us what is causing this shortage of tampons, and specifically, why now?

CARRAZANA: Yeah. So we saw a smaller shortage of tampons at the beginning of 2020 hit by some of the same supply chain issues, hoarding - right? - that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic. What has happened now is some of these ongoing problems have started to hit some of the manufacturers of tampons in the U.S. particularly hard. So we have issues with labor shortages at plants. We have issues with just tampons are really complicated products to manufacture. There's a lot of components. And so we've seen some of those individual components see price increase, transportation issues in terms of logistics and getting them. And all of that has kind of come together in this perfect storm where now, across the country, you're starting to see shelves that are half empty. There's only about 30% of stock in stores. And you're having folks driving around where, down the aisle, a couple aisles down, you also have a formula shortage. And so it's all kind of coalescing at the same time.

FLORIDO: Well, now with shelves starting to go bare, some lawmakers have started to take notice in recent days. What are they doing to try to improve this? And what can be done? Is there something that could be done now to speed up the production of tampons?

CARRAZANA: Senator Maggie Hassan sent a letter to the manufacturers this past week asking for an update on what they're planning to do to fix the shortage and whether they're keeping an eye on price gouging, because that is something that is - we're starting to anecdotally hear about it. I'm not sure how widespread it is at the moment, but we are seeing prices skyrocket on Amazon, for example, of individual boxes of tampons. Some folks are reporting that. We did speak to Procter & Gamble, and they said, we expect this to be temporary. They didn't say how temporary, but they are working, they said, 24/7 to get tampons back out. It's not as widespread as formula. We think that we'll be able to bring it in. But again, those inflation costs, those transportation costs, those labor shortages, all of that together has really hit them hard in the past couple of months in particular.

FLORIDO: Is there something about the way that things like formula and tampons are manufactured that is contributing to these shortages?

CARRAZANA: Yeah. So there's a couple of parallels here that I think are really interesting, right? Both with formula and tampons, we have less than a handful of companies that produce these products. And so when you have one of the major companies - in both cases the major manufacturer, it's Abbott Nutrition for formula and Procter & Gamble for tampons - have faced significant challenges in a short time frame that has, you know, been kind of what has set off this chain of events, right? That happened in both cases.

FLORIDO: And you've spoken with women who have already been affected by the shortage, who've struggled to find what they need. Can you tell us what you've heard from them?

CARRAZANA: Yeah. So I spoke to one mom, Diamond Conton (ph), in Indianapolis this week who is really at the intersection of all of these shortages that we're facing right now as a country, right? So she has two daughters who are menstruating, who need tampons to go swimming this summer. She's been going from store to store to store, picking up a box here if she finds it or nothing at all. And at the same time, she is pregnant. And with her last child, she had to formula feed him. And so she's wondering, is this formula shortage going to catch up to me in a couple of months as well? And on top of all of that, we have an ongoing childcare shortage that has been very acute since the beginning of the pandemic. And she cannot work because she cannot put her kids in childcare. She cannot find childcare that will take them that is affordable. So we have people who are at this sort of point of desperation.

FLORIDO: In our economy right now, you know, we're seeing shortages of a lot of products and waiting times to get our hands on a lot of products whose production has been slowed down because of supply chain problems. But tampons aren't something you can just wait for. I mean, what does it mean for women not to be able to get their hands on them?

CARRAZANA: Right. Right. A tampon isn't a bar stool that's delayed three months. It's not a microchip on a laptop, right? Which we've all seen those shortages. You know, for menstruating people, tampons are a critical item for managing their health. You know, we're not talking about a luxury in any sense of the word. If you're not able to have access to tampons, pads - and there's myriad reasons why a person would choose one or the other, what works for their lifestyle - so for both of them, these are essential products. If you don't have them, it increases the risk of infections, rashes, toxic shock syndrome. There's real consequences to not being able to access these products. And yet, you know, as a country, we have not necessarily prioritized them. Twenty-five states still tax them with sales tax, even though food and medications don't fall under that because they're essential. But for whatever reason, these products do not fall under essential, although for our bodies, they are absolutely essential.

FLORIDO: That was Chabeli Carrazana. You can read her piece, "A Tampon Shortage, During A Formula Shortage, During A Childcare Shortage" in The 19th. Chabeli, thanks for being with us.

CARRAZANA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.