In 2009, the federal government collected $9.6 billion in revenue from excise taxes on distilled spirits, beer, and wine. The different alcoholic beverages are taxed at different rates. Specifically, the alcohol content of beer and wine is taxed at a much lower rate than the alcohol content of distilled spirits because the taxes are determined on the basis of different liquid measures. Distilled spirits are measured in proof gallons (a standard unit for measuring the alcohol content of a liquid). The current excise tax levied on those spirits, $13.50 per proof gallon, translates to about 21 cents per ounce of alcohol. Beer, by contrast, is measured by the barrel, and the current tax rate of $18 per barrel translates to about 10 cents per ounce of alcohol (under the assumption that the average alcohol content of beer is 4.5 percent). The current levy on wine is $1.07 per gallon, or about 8 cents per ounce of alcohol (assuming an average alcohol content of 11 percent).
This option would standardize the base on which the federal excise tax is levied by using the proof gallon as the measure for all alcoholic beverages. The tax would be raised to $16 per proof gallon, thus increasing revenues by about $29 billion over the 2012-2016 period and by $60 billion over the 2012-2021 period. (Because excise taxes reduce producers' and consumers' income, higher excise taxes would lead to reductions in revenues from income and payroll taxes. The estimates shown here reflect those reductions.)
A tax of $16 per proof gallon would equal about 25 cents per ounce of alcohol. Under this option, the federal excise tax on a 750-milliliter bottle (commonly referred to as a fifth) of distilled spirits would rise from about $2.14 to $2.54. The tax on a six-pack of beer would jump from about 33 cents to 81 cents, and the tax on a 750-milliliter bottle of wine would increase by a similar amount, from about 21 cents to 70 cents.
Experts agree that the consumption of alcohol creates costs for society that are not reflected in the pretax price of alcoholic beverages. Examples of those "external costs" include spending on health care that is related to alcohol consumption and covered by the public, losses in productivity stemming from alcohol consumption that are borne by others besides the consumer, and the loss of lives and property that results from alcohol-related accidents and crime. Calculating such costs is difficult. However, a study conducted for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimated that the external economic costs of alcohol abuse exceeded $100 billion in 1998--an amount far greater than the revenues currently derived from taxes on alcoholic beverages.1 When adjusted for inflation, current excise tax rates on alcohol are far lower than historical levels. In the 1950s, excise taxes accounted for nearly half of the pretax price of alcohol; they now account for between 10 percent and 20 percent of the pretax price.
One argument in favor of raising excise taxes on alcoholic beverages is that they would reduce alcohol use--and thus the external costs of that use--and make consumers of alcoholic beverages pay a larger share of such costs. Research has consistently shown that higher prices lead to less alcohol consumption, even among heavy drinkers.
Moreover, raising excise taxes to reduce consumption might be desirable, regardless of the effect on external costs, if lawmakers believed that consumers underestimated the harm they do to themselves by drinking. Heavy drinking is known to cause organ damage and cognitive impairment; and the links between highway accidents and drinking, which are especially strong among the young, are well-documented. Substantial evidence also indicates that the use of alcohol from an early age can lead to heavy consumption later in life. When deciding how much to drink, people--particularly young people--may not adequately consider such long-term risks to their health.
An increase in taxes on alcoholic beverages would have disadvantages as well. It would make a tax that is already regressive--one that takes up a greater percentage of income for low-income families than for middle- and upper-income families--even more so. In addition, it would affect not only problem drinkers but also drinkers who imposed no costs on society and who thus would be unduly penalized. Furthermore, higher taxes would reduce consumption by some moderate drinkers whose intake of alcohol is believed to have health benefits. (Moderate alcohol consumption, particularly of wine, has been linked to lower incidence of heart disease, obesity, and stroke and to increases in life expectancy in middle age.) Finally, with regard to the argument that some drinkers underestimate the personal costs of alcohol consumption, some opponents of raising taxes on alcohol argue that the government should not try to modify consumers' private behavior.