The Australian Government has imposed an excise tax on tobacco products since 1901. Until 1 November 1999, excise duty was levied according to the weight of the manufactured tobacco product: in the case of cigarettes, on the total weight of the cigarette (i.e. including paper and filter but not packaging); for loose tobacco, on the weight of the tobacco alone, again without packaging.
To maintain the real price of cigarettes, federal excise increased every six months in line with the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The Australian Government instituted a series of increases in the real excise level on tobacco products from 1993 to 1995.
On 5 August 1997 the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in the case of Ngo Ngo Ha vs the State of New South Wales. The court found the states and territories did not have the power to levy tobacco franchise fees, as they constituted an excise in contravention of section 90 of the Constitution.
As a result of the High Court decision, the Commonwealth introduced a safety net for the states and territories revenue base by collecting the revenue that was generated through state franchise fees on behalf of the states, and returning it to them for their distribution. These arrangements were complex and consisted of both a weight-based and ad-valorem surcharge.
In 1997-98 Commonwealth excise collections on behalf of the states and territories were approximately $2.4 billion and approximately $3 billion in 1998-99.
In August 1998, the Australian Government announced its decision to introduce a 'per stick' tobacco excise system to replace the existing weight based system. Final details on the implementation of this announcement were released on 3 February 1999. Although the per stick scheme was to be introduced on 1 July 1999, it was not introduced until 1 November 1999 in order to enable tobacco manufacturers sufficient time to implement the required changes. Cigarette prices rose as a result of the introduction of the per stick excise duty in November 1999. A further price rise occurred with the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on 1 July 2000.
The weight-based excise system enabled manufacturers to minimise costs by reducing the weight of each cigarette and packaging more cigarettes in larger packs. These cigarettes were much cheaper per cigarette and attractive to price sensitive smokers including young people and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The introduction of the per-stick system ensured that the price of premium brand cigarettes did not fall in price but high volume, low weight cigarettes rose in price.
The single rate 'per stick' excise applies to all cigarettes with a tobacco content up to and including 0.8 grams per cigarette. An excise per kilogram of tobacco applies to all other tobacco products, including cigarettes heavier than 0.8 grams of tobacco per cigarette, loose tobacco and cigars.
Following a recommendation by the National Preventative Health Taskforce, from midnight on 29 April 2010, the government increased the excise and excise-equivalent customs duty rate applying to tobacco products by 25%. The excise on cigarettes was increased from $0.2622 to $0.32775 per stick and the excise on loose leaf tobacco was increased from $327.77 to $409.71 per kilogram. This additional revenue will, along with existing tobacco excise revenues, be invested in improving health and hospitals.