Excise Tax: What It Is and How It Works, With Examples

Excise Tax

Investopedia / Crea Taylor

What Is an Excise Tax?

An excise tax is a legislated tax on specific goods or services at purchase such as fuel, tobacco, and alcohol. Excise taxes are intranational taxes imposed within a government infrastructure rather than international taxes imposed across country borders. A federal excise tax is usually collected from motor fuel sales, airline tickets, tobacco, and other goods and services.

Key Takeaways

  • Excise taxes are taxes required on specific goods or services like fuel, tobacco, and alcohol.
  • They are primarily taxes that must be paid by businesses, usually increasing prices for consumers indirectly.
  • Excise taxes can be ad valorem (paid by percentage) or specific (cost charged by unit).
  • Sin taxes are a form of excise tax on goods that have a high social cost, such as alcohol and tobacco.
  • Some excise taxes can be required directly from the consumer like property taxes and excise tax penalties on certain retirement account activities.
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Excise Tax

How an Excise Tax Works

Excise taxes are primarily for businesses. Many of them are paid by merchants who then pass the tax on to consumers through higher prices. Merchants pay excise taxes to wholesalers and consider them in product pricing which increases the retail price overall. As such, consumers may or may not see the cost of most excise taxes directly. But there are some excise taxes that are paid directly by consumers, including property taxes and levies on certain retirement account activities.

Federal, state, and local governments have the authority to institute excise taxes. While income tax is the primary revenue generator for federal and state governments, excise tax revenue also makes up a small portion of total revenue.

Excise taxes are primarily a business tax. It separate from others that corporations must pay, such as income taxes. Businesses charging and receiving excise taxes are required to file Form 720 Federal Excise Tax Return on a quarterly basis and include quarterly payments. Business collectors of excise taxes must also maintain their obligations for passing on excise taxes to state and local governments as required. Merchants may be allowed deductions or credits on their annual income tax returns related to excise tax payments.

Excise taxes can fall into one of two categories:

  • Ad Valorem Taxes: These excise taxes are fixed percentage rates assessed on particular goods or services.
  • Specific Taxes: These taxes are fixed dollar amounts applied to certain purchases.

In some cases, governments levy excise taxes on goods that have a high social cost, such as cigarettes and alcohol. This is why these taxes are sometimes called sin taxes

The largest revenue-producing excise taxes in the U.S. come from motor fuel, airline tickets, tobacco, alcohol, health-related goods, and health-related services.

Ad Valorem Excise Taxes

Ad valorem is a Latin phrase that literally means according to value. An ad valorem tax is charged on a percentage basis. This results in an excise tax that is based on the value of the product or service.

For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) levies a 10% excise tax on indoor tanning services. This means that if a tanning salon charges $100 for a tanning session, it must pay the IRS $10 in excise tax. Similarly, if the company charges $200 for tanning, it must pay a $20 excise tax.

Other types of ad valorem excise taxes include firearms (10%), airline tickets (7.5%), and heavy trucks (12%). Property taxes can also be considered a type of ad valorem excise tax.

Specific Excise Taxes

Specific excise taxes are a set tax or fee added to a certain product on a per-unit basis. Some examples of federal, specific excise taxes include cigarettes ($1.01 per pack of 20), pipe tobacco ($2.83 per pound), beer ($7 for the first 60,000 barrels), cruise ship passengers ($3 per passenger), and gasoline ($0.183 per gallon).

Sin taxes on targeted goods like beer and alcohol will often be taxed at the federal level and also taxed heavily by the state, making the cost of these items higher. For example, New York has a specific excise tax of $4.35 per cigarette pack of 20. Combining this with the federal tax of $1.01 makes the excise taxes alone $5.36. These taxes have a considerable impact on the consumer.

The IRS provides guidance on excise taxes in Publication 510.

Excise Taxes on Retirement Accounts

Excise taxes are also charged on some retirement account activities. Many people are familiar with these taxes as penalties. A 6% excise tax is applied to excess individual retirement account (IRA) contributions that are not corrected by the applicable deadline. A 10% excise tax penalty applies to distributions from certain IRAs and other qualified plans when an investor makes withdrawals before age 59½.

Also, a 50% excise tax penalty is charged when investors do not take the mandatory required minimum distributions (RMDs) from certain retirement accounts. RMDs are mandatory after age 72 (for anyone who reaches age 70½ in 2020 or later) for traditional IRA accounts and several other tax-deferred retirement savings plans.

Who Pays Excise Taxes?

Excise taxes are imposed on certain goods and services, such as gasoline and alcohol. These taxes are paid directly by businesses. This tax is often passed on to the consumer, who may or may not be aware that they're paying it to the merchant because it's included in the price. This is common in the fuel industry, where companies include excise taxes on the price at the pump that is paid by their customers.

What Is a Federal Excise Tax?

A federal excise tax is charged on certain goods and services by the federal government. It may or may not be included by the merchant into the price. This means that consumers don't pay these taxes directly as they would any other type of tax, such as income taxes. Federal excise taxes are commonly imposed on things like fuel, airline tickets, tobacco, and alcohol.

How Is an Excise Tax Different From a Sales Tax?

Excise and sales taxes are two very different types of taxes. An excise tax is imposed on very specific goods and is generally the responsibility of the merchant to pay to the government. The merchant, in turn, may or may not pass the tax on to the consumer by adding it into the price. A sales tax, on the other hand, is charged on almost everything and is collected from the consumer by the merchant who passes it on to the government. Rather than being a fixed amount like an excise tax, the sales tax is a percentage of the price of the good or service. So the tax on a $25 sweater would be lower than the sales tax on a $200 television set.

The Bottom Line

Benjamin Franklin once said, "Nothing is certain except death and taxes." And there is certainly a plethora of different taxes to go around. While most people know what income taxes and sales taxes are, excise taxes may not necessarily be front and center in everyone's minds. But just because you don't know about them doesn't mean that you don't pay them.

These taxes are commonly added to the price of certain goods and services by the merchants that sell them. As such, they may be passed on to you and you may not even know it. Some companies are very transparent, though, like fuel companies. Next time you go to fill up your gas tank, take a look at the pump. The company may break down how much of the price at the pump goes toward the fuel itself versus how much you pay in taxes.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Tax Policy Center. "What are the major federal excise taxes, and how much money do they raise?"

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Instructions for Form 720, Quarterly Federal Excise Tax Return," Pages 1-2.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 510, Excise Tax (Including Fuel Tax Credits and Refunds," Page 2.

  4. U.S. Government. "Present Law and Background Information on Federal Excise Tax."

  5. New York State Government, Department of Taxation and Finance. "Cigarette and Tobacco Products Tax."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 510, Excise Taxes."

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions."

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Plan and IRA Required Minimum Distributions FAQs."

  9. U.S. Department of the Treasury. "My Retirement Account -- Summary of Key Roth IRA Features."

  10. National Constitution Center. "Benjamin Franklin’s last great quote and the Constitution."

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