What are the major federal excise taxes, and how much money do they raise?
Federal excise tax revenues—mostly collected from sales of motor fuel, airline tickets, tobacco, alcohol, and health-related goods and services—totaled $98.3 billion in fiscal year 2015, or 3 percent of federal tax receipts.
Excise taxes are narrowly based taxes on consumption, levied on specific goods, services, and activities. They can be either a per-unit tax (such as the per-gallon tax on gasoline) or a percentage of price (such as the airline ticket tax). Generally, excise taxes are collected from producers or wholesalers, and are embedded in the price paid by final consumers.
Federal excise tax revenue has declined over time relative to the size of the economy. As a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), excise tax revenue fell from 2.7 percent in 1950 to 0.7 percent by 1979 (figure 1). Receipts temporarily increased as a result of the crude oil windfall profit tax imposed in 1980, but excluding that tax, revenue held fairly steady (the dashed line in figure 1) at about 0.7 percent of GDP through the 1980s and 1990s. Excise tax revenues as a percent of GDP gradually declined again throughout the 2000s to roughly 0.5 percent in recent years.
This revenue is either transferred to the general fund or allocated to trust funds dedicated to specified purposes. General fund excise taxes account for roughly 40 percent of total excise receipts, with the remaining 60 percent going to trust funds.
General fund excise taxes are imposed on many goods and services, the most prominent of which are alcohol, tobacco, and health insurance. Other general fund excise taxes include taxes on local telephone service, vehicles with low-mileage ratings (“gas guzzlers”), ozone-depleting chemicals, indoor tanning services, and medical devices.
Excise taxes dedicated to trust funds finance transportation and well as environmental- and health-related spending. The Highway Trust Fund and the Airport and Airway Trust Fund account for over 90 percent of trust fund excise tax receipts, mostly from taxes on gasoline and other transportation fuels (Highway Trust Fund), and air travel (Airport and Airway Trust Fund). Five categories of excise taxes—highway, tobacco, air travel, health, and alcohol—accounted for 94 percent of total excise tax receipts in fiscal year (FY) 2015 (figure 2).
Excise Taxes Dedicated to the Highway Trust Fund
Highway-related excise tax revenue totaled $37.4 billion in FY2015, 38.1 percent of all excise tax revenue. Gasoline and diesel taxes, which are 18.4 and 24.4 cents per gallon, respectively, make up over 90 percent of total highway tax revenue, with the remaining from taxes on other fuels, trucks, trailers, and tires. (The tax rates for gasoline and diesel include a 0.1 percent tax that is earmarked for the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund.) Most other motor fuels are also subject to excise taxes, although “partially exempt” fuels produced from natural gas are taxed at much lower rates. Tax credits for producers of certain fuels deemed environmentally superior—including biodiesel, renewable diesel mixtures, alternative fuel, and alternative fuel mixtures —expired at the end of 2014 but were extended retroactively to January 1, 2015, and through 2016.
Tobacco Excise Taxes
Revenue from tobacco taxes totaled $14.5 billion in FY2015, accounting for 14.7 percent of all excise tax revenue. Federal excise taxes are imposed on tobacco products, which include cigarettes, cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco, pipe tobacco, and roll-your-own. The tax is calculated per thousand cigars or cigarettes, or per pound of tobacco, depending on the product. The tax equals about $1.00 per pack of 20 cigarettes. Cigarette papers and tubes are also subject to tax. Tobacco taxes are collected when the products leave bonded premises for domestic distribution. Exported products are exempt. Unlike other excise taxes that are collected by the IRS, alcohol and tobacco taxes are collected by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the US Treasury Department.
Excises Taxes Dedicated to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund
Revenue from excise taxes dedicated to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund totaled $14.3 billion in FY2015, accounting for 14.5 percent of all excise tax receipts. According to Congressional Budget Office data, more than 90 percent of aviation excise taxes came from taxing passenger air fares, with the remaining coming from taxes on air cargo and aviation fuels.
Domestic air travel is subject to a 7.5 percent tax based on the ticket price plus $4.00 (in 2016) for each flight segment (one takeoff and one landing). A 6.25 percent tax is charged on domestic cargo transportation. International arrivals and departures are taxed at $17.80 per person (in 2016); there is no tax on international cargo. Both the domestic segment fee and the international arrivals and departures fee are indexed for inflation.
Health Care Related Excise Taxes Enacted by the Affordable Care Act
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) legislation passed in 2010 contained several health-related excise taxes. Currently, the largest is an annual fee on health insurance providers. This fee represents a fixed aggregate amount for each calendar year ($11.3 billion for 2015), which is imposed on insurance providers according to their market share. Starting in 2014, an annual fee also applies to manufacturers and importers of branded prescription drugs ($3 billion per year in 2014 through 2016). A 40 percent excise tax on certain high-cost employer sponsored health insurance plans (the “Cadillac tax”) was scheduled to begin in 2018 but Congress passed a two-year postponement of the excise tax, which will now begin in 2020. Other health care–related excise taxes include a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices and a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning services. Congress suspended the excise tax on medical devices for two years for medical device sales in 2016 and 2017. In addition, the ACA imposes excise taxes on individuals without essential health insurance coverage (the “individual mandate”) as an incentive to buy it, and on large employers that choose not to offer health care coverage (the “employer mandate”).
ACA-related excise tax revenue totaled $16.3 billion in FY2015, 16.6 percent of total excise receipts. Revenue from these excise taxes is scheduled to increase significantly over the 10-year budget window and will account for about 22 percent of all federal excise tax revenue from 2017 through 2026.
Alcohol Excise Taxes
Excise tax revenue from alcoholic beverages amounted to $9.6 billion in FY2015, 9.8 percent of total excise receipts. There are different tax rates for distilled spirits, wine, and beer. Distilled spirits are taxed at $13.50 per proof gallon (a proof gallon is one liquid gallon that is 50 percent alcohol); tax rates on wines vary based on type and alcohol content, ranging from 22.6 cents per gallon for hard cider to $3.40 per gallon for sparkling wines; beer is typically taxed at $18.00 per barrel (31 gallons), although a reduced rate of $7.00 per barrel applies to the first 60,000 barrels for breweries that produce less than two million barrels. Note that the alcohol content of beer and wine is taxed at a much lower rate than the alcohol content of distilled spirits. Alcohol products can be exported or delivered for nonbeverage uses without incurring the tax.
Office of Management and Budget. Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2017, Historical Tables. Table 2.3. “Receipts by Source as a Percentage of GDP: 1934–2021”; Table 2.4. “Composition of Social Insurance and Retirement Receipts and of Excise Taxes: 1940–2021.”
Congressional Budget Office. 2016. The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2016 to 2026. Washington DC: Congressional Budget Office, January 25, 2016.
Joint Committee on Taxation. 2015. “Present Law and Background Information on Federal Excise Taxes.” JCX-99-15. Washington, DC: Joint Committee on Taxation.
Joint Committee on Taxation. 2015. “Exclusion for Employer-Provided Health Benefits and Other Health-Related Provisions of the Internal Revenue Code: Present Law and Selected Estimates.” JCX-25-16. Washington, DC: Joint Committee on Taxation.
Rosenberg, Joseph. 2015. “The Distributional Burden of Federal Excise Taxes.” Washington, DC: Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.