Tobacco stocks: A hard habit to break

The industry is offsetting revenue declines by cutting costs, boosting prices and diversifying into smokeless tobacco products like snuff.

By May 7, 2012 2:28PM

By Shirley WonThe Globe and Mail


Somebody forgot to tell investors that cigarettes are a declining business.


The S&P 500 tobacco index has beaten the market, jumping 13% so far this year after surging 36% in 2011. While the U.S. tobacco industry must wrestle with falling cigarette sales, rising taxes and potential litigation headaches, dividend hunters can't kick the industry's lush payouts.


"The products tobacco companies make are abhorrent, . . . but they are amazing businesses," says Darren McKiernan, a portfolio manager with Invesco Canada. "The beautiful thing about it is that these companies generate so much cash," he added. "They pay out 50% to 75% of their earnings in the form of dividends, and they buy back stock."


Philip Morris International (PM) and its former parent Altria (MO), both of which sell the iconic Marlboro brand, are among the best-positioned bets in a sector where dividends now yield 3% to 6%. Both companies recently reported higher first-quarter profit, while Lorillard (LO) and Reynolds American (RAI) earnings fell on weaker cigarette volume.


Sales of cigarettes have been falling in markets like the United States and other developed countries because of smoking bans and concerns about tobacco-related cancer. But the industry has been offsetting revenue declines by cutting costs, boosting prices, and diversifying into smokeless tobacco products like snuff, which is inhaled through the nose, and snus, which users insert between their teeth and gums.


Lorillard, which last year fought off a proposed U.S. government ban on its top-selling menthol cigarettes, expanded its offerings last week by buying Blu Ecigs, a maker of electronic cigarettes that heat nicotine-laced liquid and convert it into a mist.


"At some point the party ends, but as far as I can tell, it is a long, long way off," said McKiernan, who owns Philip Morris, Altria, and British American Tobacco (BTI) in his global dividend fund.


While the U.S. tobacco industry continues to battle lawsuits, "the litigation environment is more benign now" because it has won some big cases, and litigation is less prevalent in other countries, he said. "The dirty little secret is that the biggest beneficiaries of tobacco companies are the local governments, because of the taxes."


China, home to a third of the world's smokers, is a closed market where tobacco sales are dominated by state-owned China National Tobacco. But cigarette sales are rising in other Asia markets, where consumers with more disposable income seek out prestigious brands such as Marlboro.


Unlike its three domestically focused U.S. peers, Philip Morris International is "generating growth and has momentum" in international markets, said Wells Fargo Securities analyst Bonnie Herzog. She rates the stock as her "top pick" with a one-year target of $96 a share.


"I expect Philip Morris' profit in Asia to double to over $10 billion by the year 2020," she said. "One of the big drivers is Indonesia, where I expect profits to quadruple."


Altria is Herzog's top U.S. pick because she expects its Philip Morris USA unit will become more aggressive in offering alternative tobacco products this year to keep its No. 1 market position.


Cigarette sales have been declining for four decades, but the U.S. tobacco category is "closer to flat" when smokeless products "be it moist snuff, snus, dissolvables or electronic cigarettes" are included, Herzog said.


She compares the sector to the beverage category, where carbonated soft drinks are fading, but "you have non-carbonated drinks, whether it is water, juice, or tea, and energy brands like Monster or Red Bull."


S&P Capital IQ analyst Esther Kwon has a "strong buy" on Philip Morris because of its rising sales in emerging markets, and a "buy" on Lorillard and Altria. Lorillard, through its Newport brand, dominates the market for menthol cigarettes, but has launched a non-menthol version that is gaining market share, she said.


"We are less positive on Reynolds American, which we have downgraded to a 'hold,'" Kwon said, because its brands are vulnerable to consumers trading down to roll-your-own cigarettes.



May 14, 2012 9:38AM
As a British National, I came to the States after High School.  I was drafted into the US Military Service at which time I never smoked.  Nothing at all to impair my judgment in very high stress combat sit reps.  After 5 years of honorable service, I was discharged at age 23.5.  My next step was college where I earned my Masters Degree in electronics engineering.  I landed a good position with a Bio-Tech organization which designed and manufactured laboratory equipment for medical research, pharmaceutical production equipment,  and so on.  I began smoking on a daily basis at age 24, and I have enjoyed every cigarette I have ever smoked, my brand of course.  I smoke Salem 100s, full flavor not heavy, perhaps half a 20 pack daily. I enjoy the good menthol flavor, inhaling the smoke is very pleasant, everything about it.  My secondary smoke is Newport menthol 100s, which is a good smoke, a little harsher than Salem.  I think the best thing about Salem cigarettes, is that they are so smooth.  I cannot smoke any of the Marlboro brands.  They give me an instant severe sore throat when I inhale, and they taste terrible.  The Marlboro Lights are worse, due to my perception as a terrible flavor, and again unpleasant inhaling.  I enjoy my brand, and I have no desire or plan to ever quit!
May 8, 2012 9:30AM
Snuff is not actually inhaled through the nose, at least not the kind that these companies are selling and actually making money with.  People put it between their cheek and gum as well.  Snus are snuff that is encased, like a teabag, which prevents the little shredded pieces of tobacco from migrating around the mouth.  Coarse snuff, also known as dip, is far and away vastly more popular and profitable than the old powdered kind that people inhaled.
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