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An excise or excise tax (sometimes called a duty of excise or a special tax) may be defined broadly as an inland tax on the production or sale of a good, or narrowly as a tax on a good produced within the country. Excises are distinguished from customs duties, which are taxes on importation. Excises, whether broadly defined or narrowly defined, are inland taxes, whereas customs duties are border taxes.
An excise is an indirect tax, meaning that the producer or seller who pays the tax to the government is expected to try to recover the tax by raising the price paid by the buyer (that is, to shift or pass on the tax). Excises are typically imposed in addition to another indirect tax such as a sales tax or VAT. In common terminology (but not necessarily in law) an excise is distinguished from a sales tax or VAT in three ways: (i) an excise typically applies to a narrower range of products; (ii) an excise is typically heavier, accounting for higher fractions (sometimes half or more) of the retail prices of the targeted products; and (iii) an excise is typically specific (so much per unit of measure; e.g. so many cents per gallon), whereas a sales tax or VAT is ad valorem, i.e. proportional to value (a percentage of the price in the case of a sales tax, or of value added in the case of a VAT).
Tax is notable for vagueness of definition. According to the New Oxford English Dictionary (Revised 2nd Ed., 2005), an excise is "a tax levied on certain goods and commodities produced or sold within a country and on licenses granted for certain activities" (emphasis added). The formula "produced or sold" is applicable to both domestic and foreign products. But the word "certain" is not further explained in the definition — or even in the etymology, according to which the word excise is derived from the Dutch accijns, which is presumed to come from the Latin accensare, meaning simply "to tax".
It would be impossible to give a general formula predicting which goods are subject to excise. Lists of such goods are readily provided by governments, and from each list one may be able to infer the motives for grouping such goods together; however, no explicit formula appears to be provided by any one government. For example:
In Australia, where the Constitution stipulates that only the Federal Parliament may impose duties of excise, the meaning of "excise" is not merely academic, but has been the subject of numerous court cases. Notwithstanding the terminology preferred by the Taxation Office, the High Court of Australia has repeated held that a tax can be an "excise" regardless of whether the taxed goods are of domestic or foreign origin; most recently, in Ha v New South Wales (1997), the majority of the Court endorsed the view that an excise is "an inland tax on a step in production, manufacture, sale or distribution of goods", and took a wide view of the kind of "step" which, if subject to a tax, would make the tax an excise. The fact that an "excise" need not discriminate between local and imported goods seems to imply that duties levied by Australian States on sales of livestock and registrations of new vehicles are duties of excise, while the wide view of the taxable "step" seems to imply that even the payroll taxes levied by the States are excises. Whatever the merits or demerits of such arguments, it is clear that the constitutional meaning of "excise" is wider than the everyday meaning.
In defence of excises on strong drink, Adam Smith wrote: "It has for some time past been the policy of Great Britain to discourage the consumption of spirituous liquors, on account of their supposed tendency to ruin the health and to corrupt the morals of the common people." Samuel Johnson was less flattering in his 1755 dictionary: "EXCI'SE. n.s. ... A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid."
Deducing from the types of goods, services and areas listed as excisable by many governments, and considering the thinkers' comments, a logical conclusion might be that excise duty was originally invented for some or all of the following reasons:
As already mentioned, many US states tax drugs, partly in order to be able to impose heavier punishments, as the Kansas Department of Revenue states on its website:
There are at least two major criticisms of such legislation, however - see below.
Gambling licences are subject to excise in many countries; however, gambling itself was for a time also subject to taxation, in the form of stamp duty, whereby a revenue stamp had to be placed on the ace of spades in every pack of cards to demonstrate that the duty had been paid (hence the elaborate designs that evolved on this card in many packs as a result). Since stamp duty was originally only meant to be applied to documents (and cards were categorized as such), the fact that dice were also subject to stamp duty (and were in fact the only non-paper item listed under the 1765 Stamp Act) suggests that its implementation to cards and dice can be viewed as a type of excise duty on gambling.
The reasons given by Canadian MPs entering the bill covered many of the above-mentioned areas, including extra funding for police protection and better healthcare for the prostitutes - however, so did many of the counterarguments.
Excise (often under different names, especially before the 15th century, usually constituting of several separate laws, each referring to the individual item being taxed) has been known to be applied to substances which would in today's world seem rather unusual, such as salt, paper, and coffee. In fact, salt was taxed as early as the second century, and as late as the twentieth.
Many different reasons have been given for the taxation of such substances, but have usually - if not explicitly - revolved around the scarcity and high value of the substance, with governments clearly feeling entitled to a share of the profits traders make on these expensive items. Such would the justification of salt tax, paper excise, and even advertisement duty have been.
Both the federal and provincial governments impose excise taxes on inelastic goods such as cigarettes, gasoline, alcohol, and for vehicle air conditioners. A great bulk of the retail price of cigarettes and alcohol are excise taxes. The vehicle air conditioner tax is currently set at $100 per air conditioning unit. Canada has some of the highest rates of taxes on cigarettes and alcohol in the world. These are sometimes referred to as sin taxes.
An excise is "a tax upon manufacture, sale or for a business license or charter," according to Law.com's Legal Dictionary, and is to be distinguished from a tax on real property, income or estates."
In the United States, the term "excise" means: (A) any tax other than a property tax or capitation (i.e., an indirect tax, or excise, in the constitutional law sense), or (B) a tax that is simply called an excise in the language of the statute imposing that tax (an excise in the statutory law sense, sometimes called a "miscellaneous excise"). An excise under definition (A) is not necessarily the same as an excise under definition (B), but the reverse is false.
Example: The Whiskey Tax that resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion which started in 1792.
Her Majesty's Customs and Excise (HMCE) was, until April 2005, a department of the British Government in the UK. It was responsible for the collection of Value added tax (VAT), Customs Duties, Excise Duties, and other indirect taxes such as Air Passenger Duty, Climate Change Levy, Insurance Premium Tax, Landfill Tax and Aggregates Levy. It was also responsible for managing the import and export of goods and services into the UK. HMCE was merged with the Inland Revenue (which was responsible for the administration and collection of direct taxes) to form a new department, HM Revenue and Customs, with effect from 18 April 2003.
The tax was first implemented in the UK under this name in the mid-17th century.
In India, an excise tax is levied on the service industry. Formerly called the Central Excise Duty, this tax is now known as the Central Value Added Tax (CENVAT). Manufacturers may offset duty paid on materials used in the manufacturing process by using that duty as a credit against excise tax through a process known as Central Value Added Tax Credit (CENVAT Credit). The offsetting process was formerly known as Modified Value Added Tax (MODVAT).
In many countries, excise duty is applied by the affixation of revenue stamps to the products being sold. In the case of tobacco or alcohol, for example, the producer buys a certain bulk amount of excise stamps from the government and is then obliged to affix one to every packet of cigarettes or bottle of spirits produced.
Critics of excise tax - such as Samuel Johnson, above - have interpreted and described excise duty as simply a government's way of levying further and unnecessary taxation on the population. The presence of "refunds of duty" under the UK's list of excisable activities has been used to support this argument, as it results in taxation being implemented on persons even where they would normally be exempt from paying other types of taxes – hence why they are getting the refund in the first place.
Furthermore, excise is often somewhat similar to other taxes and sometimes doubles up with them, as in the above example, or as in the case of customs duties: since the two taxes largely apply to the same types of goods, people are forced to pay tax twice over on the same items (except in the case of duty-free) - once through excise upon purchase and a second time around through customs duties upon transportation. (A justification for this is that the country the items are being entered into is applying the customs partly for the same reasons as the original excise was charged, as it is the country of import which will suffer the ill environmental, health and social effects of, say, the cigarettes and alcohol being brought in; thus customs has many similar pros and cons as has excise.)
There are at least two major criticisms of excise legislation on drugs -