Talking Numbers

Why big tobacco is playing it safe

Why big tobacco is playing it safe
Why big tobacco is playing it safe

Did big tobacco grow a big heart, or is its latest warnings to consumers about e-cigarettes merely a cynical way to inoculate tobacco companies from further lawsuits?

Some of the largest ones are now slapping extra-strong warning labels on their electronic cigarette products. That sounds surprising at first, given that cigarette companies have been linked to products that the CDC claims are responsible for nearly half a million American deaths each year. But e-cigarettes are growing fast. In fact, according to Wells Fargo, the e-cigarette market now makes up about $1 billion in annual revenue and could overtake traditional cigarettes in the coming decades.

But given the billions, one has to wonder if the abundance of caution it is taking with the nascent e-cigarette business is being driven by more than just altruism.

"I'm pretty skeptical that the reason behind this is just good-hearted concern for Americans, seeing as they do sell probably one of the worst products for human health out there," said CNBC contributor Gina Sanchez, founder of Chantico Global. "There is going to be money to be made. All they are doing is trying to buffer the eventual backlash that will come out of its popularity."

For investors in the company with the largest tobacco market share in the United States, there has indeed been plenty of money made recently. Shares in Altria are up nearly 20 percent this year, while the broad market S&P 500 index has gained just under 7 percent.

According to Richard Ross, global technical strategist at Auerbach Grayson, the technicals are positive for Altria's stock.

"Regardless of where you come down on this debate, … this is a very bullish short-term and long-term stock chart, perhaps a little too bullish here in the very short term," he said.

Ross, a "Talking Numbers" contributor, believes Altria's short-term support level is about $44, nearly $2 below where it currently trades. "That's prior resistance," Ross said. "You want to hold that on any pullback. I wouldn't be surprised to see a pullback. … The stock is a little bit too hot for me here."

But it's the longer-term chart of Altria that is very bullish, according to Ross. He notes that the stock has held its 100-week moving average after several tests since 2011. The 100-week moving average is currently at $37 per share.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see another test of that, even within the context of this great bull trend," Ross said. "We're kind of splitting hairs. [It has] a very strong long-term stock chart, but I think you can afford to be a little bit patient here in the short term."

To see the full discussion on Altria, with Sanchez on the fundamentals and Ross on the technicals, watch the above video.

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