SIJBREN CNOSSEN University of Maastricht
Selective taxes on goods and services, often referred to as excise taxes, are among the oldest forms of taxation in the world. 1 The salt excise, for instance, was considered a gold mine for the European sovereign during the Middle Ages, because sources of supply were few and could be easily controlled. Interestingly, the prominence of excise taxation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries owed much to the Dutch, whose duties on beer, sugar, salt, spirits, and other goods were called excijsen. 2 In fact, excise taxation was so widely applied that an English observer noted that 'a fish dish eaten in Holland pays 30 excises'. 3 From la terre classique de la fiscalité, as Holland was called at that time, excise taxation spread to other European countries. Many German states, for instance, followed the Dutch example, and the apparent success of the 'new imposts' also led to their introduction in England 4 and its colonies, including the USA.
In Europe, during the nineteenth century, many of the 'small' excises (so-called because they yielded comparatively little revenue) were abolished or absorbed into general taxes on goods and services, often referred to as sales taxes, which were widely introduced in the first quarter of the twentieth century and transformed into general consumption or value added taxes (VATs) during the 1970s and 1980s. The 'big' excises - on tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, and petroleum products - remained, but little attention was given to them in the professional literature.
This has changed greatly in recent years, primarily due to the rise and awareness of environmental problems. Greenhouse gases, for instance, lead to global warming; they are generated by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. This has led to a burgeoning literature on the use of 'economic instruments', such as excises, to restrain harmful emissions. As another example, the perceived health costs of smoking have induced the