Last updated: November 2018
Suggested citation: Scollo, M, Bayly, M. 13.2 Tobacco taxes in Australia. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2018. Available from http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-13-taxation/13-2-tobacco-taxes-in-australia
Tobacco taxes are favoured by governments because of their relatively low level of unpopularity with voters (see Section 13.12) and because of their low administrative costs relative to the income they generate.1,2
A variety of taxes are applied to cigarettes and other tobacco products internationally. Virtually all countries apply excise duty specified as an amount payable per x number of cigarette sticks. A small number of countries charge excise payable per x grams of tobacco weight. Many countries also apply one or more forms of ad valorem taxes, that is, taxes based on the monetary value of products. These include taxes added to the wholesale value of product sold and sales tax or goods and service tax applied as a percentage to the (pre-GST) retail price.3,4
The federal government has imposed excise duty on Australian-made and customs duty on imported tobacco products since the passage in 1901 of the Excise Act5 and the Customs Act.6 Prior to federation, the colonies imposed their own tariffs. 7-9
Until 1999, federal excise and customs duty was calculated on the basis of the weight of tobacco products. The Excise Regulations, 1925,10 specified precisely how manufacturers needed to label, calculate and declare excise duty. These also specified how the weight of tobacco products (and the volume of alcohol and petroleum products) was to be calculated. For cigarettes, this included the weight of filter and paper, but not the weight of the packaging.i
In the early years of last century, manufactured tobacco was charged at a rate of one shilling per pound (of product weight) and cigars were taxed at one shilling and sixpence per pound. Since 1920, the rate of the duty has been set out in (frequently amended) schedules to the Excise Tariff Act passed in 1921.11 Historically, duty on tobacco in cigarettes was levied at a higher rate than duty on non-cigarette tobacco (Table 13.2.1). In November 1983, the then federal treasurer, the Hon. Paul Keating, changed customs and excise policy in several ways. First, the rate of federal excise and customs duty was linked with the Australian Consumer Price Index (CPI),12 meaning that since that time, excise and customs duty have automatically increased twice each year. Between February 1984 and August 2013 these increases have been in line with changes in the CPI for the six months to the previous December and June. Since March 2014 increases have been in line with changes each six months between February and November in Average Weekly Earnings. Second, the rate of duty for cigars was immediately made equal to that of cigarettes. Third, the rate for non-cigarette tobacco was increased by $5 a kilo. In subsequent budgets the rate for smoking tobacco was increased further (by another $5 a kilo in the 1984 and 1985 budgetsii, and then by $1.90 in the 1986 budget).
Table 13.2.1 compares the excise duty on cigarettes with that on cigars and smoking tobacco in selected years since 1965. As can be seen in Table 13.2.1, rates for smoking tobacco became equal to that for cigarettes in 1986.
Rates of federal excise duty, August, selected years 1965–87: cigarettes, cigars and tobacco, Australia
Source: Australian Tobacco Marketing Advisory Committee Annual Report 199413
* Current dollars: the price in the applicable year; no adjustment has been made for inflation
Historically, tobacco products produced in Australia were subject to a lower rate of duty than that applicable to imported tobacco products. Customs duty was brought into line with excise duty following the publication in June 1994 of a report of an inquiry by the Industry Commission into tobacco growing and manufacturing industries in Australia.14 Coinciding with the end of the Tobacco Stabilisation Plan (see Chapter 10, Section 10.8.2), the harmonisation of customs and excise duty was in line with government policy to reduce a range of direct and indirect subsidies in an attempt to improve international competitiveness of Australian exports. Table 13.2.2 compares rates of excise and customs duty (per kilo of tobacco weight) from 1987 to 1999.
As can be seen in Table 13.2.2, excise duty became equal to customs duty in 1995.
Rates of federal duty* per kilo of weight, all tobacco products, as at June 1987 to 1999–excise and customs, Australia
Sources: 1987 to 1989: Australian Tobacco Marketing Advisory Committee Annual Report 1994;13 1990 to 1999: Scollo and Lal 200715 using rates specified in amended schedules to the Excise Tariff Act11 and the Customs Tariff Act 199516
* Current rate: the rate in the applicable year; no adjustment has been made for inflation
Throughout the 1990s, health groups lobbied for increases in federal excise duty.17,18 In addition to the six-monthly CPI increases, the government increased the rate of federal excise applicable to cigarettes and other tobacco products on several occasions. These included a $5 per kilo increase in 199219 and increases announced in the 1993 budget20 of 3% in August 1993 and 5% in February and August 1994 and February 1995.21 iii The final increment rise of 5% planned for August 1995 was brought forward and increased to an immediate 10% rise in the Federal Budget handed down on 10 May 1995.22
Figure 13.2.1 shows the rate of the federal excise duty on cigarettes over the period since 1958. The figure is expressed in constant 1989–90 dollars to take into account rising prices over that time.iv
Excise duty rate per kilo of tobacco, Australia 1958 to 1999
Note: Excise duty rate expressed in constant 1989–90 dollars
It is evident from Figure 13.2.1 that, once its value was restored by the increase and introduction of indexation in the 1983 budget, federal duty on cigarettes remained fairly steady in real terms over the late 1980s and early 1990s, increasing significantly only in the late 1990s. The level of federal duty on cigarettes in 1998 was about 50% higher in real terms than it was at its lowest point in the early 1960s.
In 1999, after extensive lobbying by health groups,17 the government moved from levying excise and customs duty on cigarettes on the basis of weight to a system based on the number of cigarettes (see Section 18.104.22.168 for full details). Excise and customs rates on cigarettes and other tobacco products applicable since 1999 are set out in Table 13.2.3.
Excise and customs duty applicable to cigarettes and other tobacco products since November 1999, Australia
Source: Rates published by the Australian Taxation Office (see https://www.ato.gov.au/Business/Excise-and-excise-equivalent-goods/Tobacco-excise/Excise-rates-for-tobacco/) and Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Rates also published in Federal Budget papers, for example Costello 1998–200626-33 and Swan 2008–1234-38
* Current dollars: the price in the applicable year; no adjustment has been made for inflation.
^ Beginning September 2017, smoking tobacco excise rates will be adjusted each year to 2020 as part of a strategy to bring the duty of RYO cigarettes in line with that on factory-made cigarettes (see below).
Between 1999 and 2010 there were no increases in tobacco excise and customs duty on tobacco products apart from adjustments for CPI. Excise and customs duty was increased by 25% on 30 April 2010, and 12.5% annually from 2013 to 2017 (Figure 13.2.2).
Value of excise and customs duty on tobacco (per cigarette stick weighing less than 0.8 grams): 2000 to 2018, Australia
Sources: As for Table 13.2.3, adjusted by the Consumer Price Index39
Note: Rate expressed in 2012 dollars. Rates at August of each year to 2013, then rates at September for 2014 onwards.
Excise and customs duty for smoking tobacco (and cigars and cigarettes weighing greater than 0.8 grams of tobacco per stick) is set at a per kilogram rate that is equivalent to factory-made cigarette sticks assuming 0.8 grams of tobacco is used per cigarette. However, smokers generally use less tobacco per cigarette than this, so that in practical terms RYO tobacco attracts less tax per stick than FM cigarettes. In 2017, the Australian Government determined that the customs duty and excise on RYO tobacco (and cigars and cigarettes weighing greater than 0.8 grams of tobacco per stick) would be harmonised with FM cigarettes over a period of four years beginning September 2017. The changes were announced in the May 2017 Federal Budget.40 The customs duty and excise rate of smoking tobacco would be increased so that it assumes that 0.775 grams is used in each stick in 2017, reducing to 0.75 grams in 2018, then 0.725 grams in 2019, and reaching 0.7 grams in 2020.41,42 By reducing the quantity of smoking tobacco assumed per cigarette, this measure is expected to increase the duty on and consequently the price of roll-your-own tobacco relative to factory-made cigarettes,43,44 curbing the growing disparity in prices of these types tobacco products—see also Section 22.214.171.124.
Figure 13.2.3 shows the rate of customs and excise duty on tobacco products from 2007 in current dollars. Rolling tobacco rates are expressed per 0.7 grams (as will be the case from 2020), compared to the rate for standard factory-made cigarettes. It can be seen that the differential between factory-made cigarettes and RYO cigarettes at 0.7 grams shrank in 2017, bringing the duty on cigarettes typically made from RYO tobacco closer to the duty on standard factory-made cigarettes. This differential will shrink further over the next three years.
Value of excise and customs duty on factory-made cigarettes and rolling tobacco at 0.7 grams per cigarette
Sources: As for Figure 13.3.2
Note: Rate expressed in current dollars, i.e. the dollar value applicable in each year. Rates at August of each year to 2013, then rates at September for 2014 onwards.
In November 1974 Victoria became the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce a licence fee (known as a business franchise fee) on the sale of tobacco products.45 The business franchise fee on tobacco had two components. The first was a set amount charged each year. The second was an amount based on the value of tobacco sold in the immediately preceding month. The monthly (variable) rate was set at 2.5% in 1974 increasing to 10% in 1975. Between 1975 and 1989, all state and territory governments introduced similar fees.46-52
The fixed licence fee and the percentage levy varied from state to state. Generally the fees were forwarded to state or territory government revenue collection offices by tobacco wholesalers; however, if retailers purchased stock from suppliers other than licensed wholesalers, they also were required to pay both the set and the variable licence fees. The percentage component was by far the more lucrative for governments, and the rate of the levy was frequently increased in all jurisdictions, sometimes more than once within the same budget period.
Table 13.2.4 shows the rates applicable in each year in each state and territory.
Rates* for business franchise fees on tobacco 1974–97 in each Australian state and territory
* Rate as % of value of total sales in preceding month
Sources: Australian Tobacco Board 1988,53 Australian Tobacco Marketing Advisory Committee 199154 and 1994,13 NSW Retail Tobacco Traders' Association cigarette price lists, June and September editions 1995,1996, 1997 55
To cover the cost of these fees, wholesalers built in a component to the wholesale prices that charged retailers for products.
The dollar value of the state fee component on a typical packet of cigarettes was quite small in early years–just a few cents in 1974. However, as the rate increased,v so did the dollar value of the fee. Figure 13.2.4 shows the dollar value (in constant $-1989–90) of the fee applicable on a typical packet of cigarettes, Winfield 25s, in New South Wales between 1975 and 1999.vi
Dollar value of the tobacco business franchise fee applicable on a typical packet of Winfield 25s in New South Wales between 1976 and 1998
Note: Dollar rate expressed in 1980–90 dollars
In New South Wales, the dollar value of the fee doubled in real terms between 1976 and 1986. Between 1986 and 1996, it increased by a further 400% in real terms. Similar increases occurred in the other states and territories.
Since they were first introduced, the state business franchise fees were somewhat controversial and several legal challenges were mounted asserting that the schemes were in breach of s. 90 of the Australian Constitution, which prohibits Australian states and territories from raising revenue from the sale of productsvii. The wording of the various pieces of state business franchise legislation attempted to ensure that the fees were not regarded as excises, based as they were on the value of sales in a previous period rather than on the quantity or volume of products currently being transacted. When the state business franchise fees were first introduced, the fees were quite low, arguably providing revenue sufficient merely to cover administration costs. By 1996 however, fees in New South Wales and other Australian states had become so high that they were clearly an important source of government revenue, and not merely a levy to cover the cost of regulation.
When the Ngo Ngo Ha & Anor v. State of New South Wales & Ors case was lodged in the High Court in 1996, many lawyers and government officials correctly predicted that the Court would find the fees to be unconstitutional (memorandum from Francey N, Wentworth Chambers Sydney, 8 July 1997 to Michelle Scollo, Director Victorian Smoking and Health Program). The High Court ruling on 5 August 199758 effectively invalidated not just business franchise fees based on sales of tobacco in New South Wales, but also business franchise fees based on sales of tobacco, alcohol and petroleum in all states and territories.
Several state Treasury officials, aware of the possibility of the Ngo Ngo Ha v. NSW case succeeding, had commenced negotiations with their federal counterparts late in 1996 and had extracted an undertaking that the federal government would increase federal excise duties on tobacco, alcohol and petroleum, and would pass back a share of the increased revenue to the states should the case succeed. After the High Court handed down its decision, arrangements with the states and territories to honour that commitment were rapidly set in motion–see Technical Appendix 13.2.1 for further details.
The Commonwealth agreed to collect a surcharge on each of the three products, and then to pass on the revenue to the states and territories.
In 1997 the federal (Coalition) government announced a comprehensive review of the tax system. It called for a major overhaul of federal and state taxes, the abolition of state business franchise replacement fees and a raft of state sales taxes and the introduction of a goods and services tax. It was agreed that the revenue from the new goods and services tax (GST) would go to the states and territories to compensate for the revenue no longer to be received from state sales taxes and business franchise fees.
On 13 August 1998, two weeks prior to calling an election, the government released its long awaited tax reform package, titled Tax Reform: Not a New Tax; a New Tax System.59 The proposal included plans to abolish tobacco replacement payments and to introduce a per stick system of raising customs and excise duty, with the level of the duty to be set so that the excise payable on any brand of cigarettes would be no lower than the existing level of duty.viii The fee payable on large packets of cigarettes would increase substantially, making them much closer in price (per stick) to cigarettes sold in smaller pack sizes.
After the government was re-elected, following a short delay reforms were implemented in November 1999.60
Unlike in many other countries which introduced goods and services taxes, in Australia (as requested by health groups) the excise duty on tobacco was not adjusted downward when the 10% goods and services tax (GST) was introduced.59 The GST came into force in Australia on tobacco and all other retail services and products excluding grocery items on 1 July 2000.61 - 63
As with all other taxable products and services in Australia, the GST is calculated by adding 10% to the pre-GST price. In this way, the GST makes up one-eleventh or 9.1% of the final price of each packet of cigarettes, cigars or smoking tobacco.64
As indicated in Figure 13.0.1, excise duties in Australia made up almost half of the final price of the leading packet of cigarettes in 2014.ix
Figure 13.2.5 shows tax levels in Australia compared with other countries for the year 2016. It should be noted that excise/customs duty makes up a higher proportion of the final prices of many low-cost brands of Australian cigarettes that are cheaper than the leading brand.
Excise tax as a proportion cigarette prices in Australia and comparable English-speaking and European countries, 2016
Source: World Health Organization. Table 9.5.0 Supplementary information on taxation, globally, in WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, 2017. Monitoring tobacco use and prevention policies. Geneva: WHO, 2017. Available from: http://www.who.int/tobacco/global_report/2017/en/ 65.
Note 1: These calculations only include excise duty, not goods and services or other ad valorem taxes
Note 2: It is difficult to analyse tax levels in the US because of differing levels of excise and sales tax in the 50 states and the large component of cost that is collected to pay terms of legal settlements with manufacturers.
i The weight excisable was also net of moisture. The Australian Customs Services Handbook specified that measuring equipment was to be calibrated to a particular piece of machinery used in the factory of Sydney-based manufacturer, WD and HO Wills.
ii The duty rate increased to $35.36 on 1 August 1986 and to $37.26 on 19 August 1986.
iii Originally the increases were to be 3% but were increased to 5% after a proposal by the Australian Democrats party designed to recoup forgone fuel excise revenue was accepted by the Government.
iv The figure for each year is divided by the average CPI in that year and then multiplied by 100, which was the average CPI for 1989–90.
v The price of stock supplied to wholesalers also increased.
vi Although state fees ended in 1997, between August 1997 and June 2000 the federal government collected additional excise duty equivalent to the amounts previously collected and allocated the revenue collected to the states in compensation for the lost fees.
vii For instance Philip Morris Limited & Ors v. The Commissioner of Business Franchises (Victoria) & Anor (1989) 167 CLR 399; and Capital Duplicator Pty Ltd & Anor v. Australian Capital Territory (1993) 178 CLR 561
viii At that point this included both the excise component to be retained by the federal government and amount to cover the tobacco replacement payments to be forwarded to the states and territories, which was an amount equivalent to the 100% state franchise fee that was applicable in all jurisdictions at the time the High Court ruling abolishing fees was brought down.
ix The percentage is higher in brands that are cheaper per stick and where cigarettes are sold at discounted prices.
x It is difficult to analyse tax levels in the US because of differing levels of excise and sales tax in the 52 states and the large component of cost that is collected to pay terms of legal settlements with manufacturers.
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29. Costello P. Budget Speech, 2004-05. Canberra: House of Representatives, 11 May, 2004. Available from: http://www.budget.gov.au/2004-05/bp4/html/index.htm.
30. Costello P. Budget 2005-06. Budget paper no.1. Budget strategy and outlook 2005-06. Part 3: Revenue, expenses and budget funding; Statement 5: Revenue; Appendix B: Description of the revenue heads.Table B3: Excise rates 2006 Canberra: Australian Government, 2005. Available from: http://www.budget.gov.au/2005-06/bp1/html/bst5-06.htm
31. Costello P. Budget 2006-07. Budget paper no. 1. Budget strategy and outlook 2006-07. Statement 5: Revenue, Estimates of revenue. Tables 4 and 9: Excise and customs revenue. Canberra: Australian Government, 2006. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.budget.gov.au/2006-07/bp1/html/bp1_bst5-03.htm.
32. Costello P. Budget 2006-07. Budget paper no. 1. Budget strategy and outlook 2006-07. Statement 5: Revenue, Estimates of revenue. Appendix C: Description of the revenue heads. Table C4, Excise rates Canberra: Australian Government, 2006. Available from: http://www.budget.gov.au/2006-07/bp1/html/bp1_bst5-08.htm
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34. Swan W. Budget 2008-09. Budget paper no. 1. Statement 5: Revenue, Revenue estimates by revenue head. Canberra: Australian Government, 2008. Available from: http://www.budget.gov.au/2008-09/content/bp1/html/bp1_bst5-04.htm.
35. Swan W. Budget 2009-10. Budget paper no. 1. Statement 5: Revenue, Revenue estimates by revenue head. Canberra: Australian Government, 2009. Available from: http://www.budget.gov.au/2009-10/content/bp1/html/bp1_bst5-06.htm.
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40. Morrison S and Cormann M. Budget 2017-18. Budget paper no. 2.Part 1. Revenue measures. Canberra: Treasury, 2017. Available from: http://www.budget.gov.au/2017-18/content/bp1/html/.
41. Customs Tariff Amendment (Tobacco Duty Harmonisation) Bill 2017, 2017. Available from: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22legislation%2Fbillhome%2Fr5892%22;src1=sm1.
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Each state and territory had, over the years, developed different methods of collecting licence fees, with different levels of fees, different due dates and a variety of other arrangements to suit local needs and politics.
The Commonwealth was anxious to honour its commitment to the States to make up the revenue lost from the abolition of state franchise fees after the High Court ruled in August 1997 that these fees were unconstitutional. However, one of the key platforms of the (opposition Coalition) government in power prior to the previous election had been a promise not to increase taxes. A key political objective of the federal and some of the state governments was thus to protect consumers from possible price rises in tobacco, alcohol and particularly petroleum products.
Frantic negotiations ensued between state and federal representatives in the wake of the 1997 High Court decision. The first 'deal' that emerged involved the Commonwealth collecting revenue set to equal the highest rates applicable to each product in any jurisdiction. This meant that the Commonwealth would collect and distribute $6.5 billion rather than the $5 billion formerly collected by the states and territories. The states and territories, in turn, would provide rebates to manufacturers/wholesalers in lower taxing states, to ensure that no state received windfall revenue and no consumers faced huge price hikes. Refer to the States Grants (General Purposes) Amendment Act No. 1, 131 of 1997.
Within days, however, complications emerged in respect of tobacco. While Treasury officials had anticipated the High Court ruling and had prepared to compensate the States in broad terms, it seems that no-one had carefully enough thought through the precise details of exactly how revenue would be raised by the Commonwealth and exactly how it would be collected. Treasury officials and (relatively new) government advisers involved in negotiations with the States may not have had a very firm understanding of the price structure of cigarettes or the intricacies of collection.
Following the ruling, the Commonwealth announced that the federal excise duty on tobacco would be increased by $167 per kilogram (from $84.27 per kilogram). As had been predicted in the cigarette taxes and prices model developed by the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, this led to an immediate price rise in budget cigarettes, in particular in the Wills Horizon brand–heavier than its competitors Holiday (Rothmans) and Longbeach (Philip Morris). As a consequence, WD and HO Wills lodged the strongest possible protest with the Treasurer's office, suspended sales and requested that its shares be suspended on the Australian Stock Exchange (Adams, 1997). Wills Chairman, former NSW premier Nick Greiner, appealed to the Treasurer for the increased excise to be replaced by an ad valorem tax. Rothmans and Philip Morris were also unhappy about the increased excise duty, which would have increased prices by as much as $1.75 per packet, and raised an additional $500 million in revenue. They objected, however, to the Wills proposal, which would have been much more advantageous for the Wills brands.
By the end of the week, confusion reigned and further desperate rounds of negotiations were taking place between federal Treasury officials, officials in state governments and wholesalers and retailer associations for alcohol, tobacco and petroleum products throughout the country.
Confronted by pressure from alcohol wholesalers and retailers, the Victorian, Queensland and Australian Capital Territory governments agreed to fund the prepaid alcohol fees, thereby protecting consumers from a large increase in low alcohol beer and wine prices (Pinkney 1997). South Australia and New South Wales initially resisted pressure to provide such refunds, (correctly as it turns out) asserting that they would miss out on revenue once the Commonwealth took over responsibility for revenue collection, and collections were made on a cash rather than an accrual basis. The Western Australian government was then very concerned about the impact on its total revenue: it had been counting on the over-payments from alcohol and tobacco to subsidise low alcohol beer, cellar door wine sales and petrol prices for off-road users, previously exempted from the state's fuel levy. Western Australia, supported by South Australia and Tasmania, boycotted talks on 25 August with tobacco companies initiated by the Commonwealth (Washington 1997).
By the beginning of September, confusion had degenerated into chaos, and the federal Treasurer had little choice but to threaten withdrawal of the safety net unless the states agreed to his plan. The deal that emerged was a series of trade-offs between all the parties concerned, with the federal government more or less achieving its aims of: maintaining total revenue for the states, even if revenue from individual products might be reduced; minimising price rises particularly of low alcohol products and petrol; and in the case of tobacco, treating each of the three manufacturers in an equitable manner.
In the end, the legislation instituted to cover the new arrangements essentially replicated (exclusively at the federal level rather than at federal and state level) the tax and price structure in place on cigarettes prior to the High Court ruling.
Two pieces of legislation were passed to put these cumbersome arrangements into law.
First was the States Grants (General Purposes) Amendment Act (No. 2) 1997, which amended the States Grants (General Purposes) Act 1994. This determined a revised share of revenue to go to each state, roughly in line with previous expected revenue, but taking into account concerns raised by a number of the smaller states.
The second piece of legislation related to the manner in which the surcharge on tobacco was to be raised. On 17 September 1997, the government gazetted a new regime for the taxing of cigarettes, later to be instituted in the Excise Tariff Amendment Act (No. 5) 1997.61 After lobbying by manufacturers concerned about the differential effect of the proposed new arrangements on each company's products, the legislation in the end was formulated in a way that replicated the tax structure that was in place prior to the High Court decision. That is, part of the formula for determining excise (and customs) duty was based on weight, and part on the wholesale value of the product sold. The weight-based excise on tobacco increased from $84.27 to $86.92 per kilogram. The value-based component increased from 100% of the wholesale value of tobacco products to about 101.3%. The new schedule stated that the state surcharge would be based on 50.32% of the listed wholesale price, which is mathematically equivalent to 101.3% of the pre-wholesale price, just 1.3% higherxi than the level that had been applicable under the states' business franchise legislation.
xi This component was to cover the cost of administering the new arrangement.