Health and Science

Altria shutters its e-cigarette brands as it eyes Juul, awaits iQOS decision

Key Points
  • Altria said it has discontinued its MarkTen and Green Smoke e-cigarettes.
  • Altria is considering a significant minority stake in Juul, a person familiar with the matter told CNBC.
  • If the Food and Drug Administration clears Philip Morris International's heated tobacco product, iQOS, Altria will sell it in the U.S.
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Tobacco giant Altria is giving up on its existing e-cigarette brands as it eyes the best-selling brand, Juul.

Altria on Friday said it would discontinue its MarkTen and Green Smoke products, along with Verve oral nicotine products. It said was based on the products' financial performance and the regulatory process that would require Altria to file any updates with the Food and Drug Administration before bringing them to market. The company expects to write down the assets with a one-time, pretax charge of about $200 million in the fourth quarter.

Instead, Altria said it will "refocus its resources on more compelling reduced-risk tobacco product opportunities," referring to tobacco products that are thought to be less harmful than smoking conventional cigarettes. Already, the company has inked an agreement with Philip Morris International to commercialize its heated tobacco product, iQOS, in the U.S. if the FDA clears it. Now, Altria is considering taking a significant minority stake in e-cigarette company Juul, people familiar with the matter have told CNBC. It, along with a deal announced Friday to buy a stake in Canadian cannabinoid company Cronos, are signs of the tough choices Altria is having to make to compete.

"We remain committed to being the leader in providing adult smokers innovative alternative products that reduce risk, including e-vapor," Altria CEO Howard Willard said in a statement. "We do not see a path to leadership with these particular products and believe that now is the time to refocus our resources."

Altria makes the best-selling cigarette, Marlboro. Altogether, its cigarette brands represent half of the market, according to IRI data included in the company's third-quarter earnings release.

Its e-cigarettes haven't fared as well.

In the four-week period ended Nov. 17, Altria captured just 4 percent of the e-cigarette market, according to Nielsen data compiled by Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog. In the same period, Juul captured 75 percent of the market.

Juul's sales have skyrocketed 941 percent over the past year, according to Nielsen. The company's success has driven nearly 64 percent of the total category's $2.84 billion in sales over the past year.

For Altria, an investment in Juul would give it something it has struggled with: volume growth.

Since 2009, Altria's revenue has grown 9 percent, to $25.58 billion from $23.56 billion. But Altria's U.S. cigarette volume has nearly halved — to 116.6 billion units in 2017 from 211.9 billion units in 2000.

And Altria currently makes the bulk of its money selling cigarettes. Of the $25.58 billion in total revenue the company generated last year, $22.64 billion — or 89 percent — came from its smokeable products business segment, which contains cigarettes and cigars.

On average, Altria's cigarette volume decreases 3 percent every year, according to a review of the company's financial statements. The company has managed to offset these declines through price increases. However, the declines have started accelerating, worrying some analysts and investors they may be unsustainable.

Shares of Altria are down about 24 percent this year.

In the first nine months of this year, Altria's cigarette shipment volume fell 6.3 percent. On a call with Wall Street analysts in October, Altria CEO Howard Willard attributed at least part of the trend to more smokers giving up conventional cigarettes and switching to e-cigarettes.

Right now, when smokers ditch Marlboro for Juul, Altria loses out. That will change if Altria owns a portion of Juul.

Plus, Juul pods may be more profitable than conventional cigarettes because they typically aren't taxed and don't have to pay costs associated with the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), a deal negotiated in 1998 between tobacco manufacturers and state attorneys general that ended a wave of ongoing lawsuits.

An average pack of cigarettes in the U.S. cost consumers $6.60, according to a research note from Piper Jaffray analyst Michael Lavery. State and local excise taxes on that pack typically equal $1.75, he wrote, while costs associated with the MSA total 75 cents. Manufacturers' operating profit usually comes out to $1.26, Lavery said.

Juul doesn't pay the approximately $2.50 in MSA costs and taxes that Altria pays. So far, 10 states have adopted e-cigarette taxes, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

A pack of four Juul nicotine pods costs $15.99, or about $4 per pod, on the company's online shop. The amount of nicotine in each pod is equivalent to one pack of cigarettes. So while it's unclear how much money Juul makes on each pod since the company is private, Juul appears to have an advantage.

Pressure has mounted on Juul, with regulators demanding the company fix "epidemic" levels of minors using the company's products. However, Altria is used to navigating regulation and litigation. And it may decide the risks are worth taking.

Altria on Friday also announced it would invest $1.8 billion to buy a 45 percent stake in Cronos. As an investor, Altria said it will provide Cronos with its expertise in regulatory affairs, regulatory science, compliance, government affairs and brand management.

If Altria also invests in Juul, it's likely the company could provide the same services.

Altria is also awaiting a decision from the FDA on Philip Morris International's new heated tobacco product, iQOS. The device heats tobacco instead of burning it, with the idea that it gives smokers the nicotine they want while preventing combustion, the chemical process responsible for producing toxins in cigarettes. PMI already sells iQOS in 46 markets overseas.

PMI has two separate applications into the FDA: one that would simply allow it to sell iQOS in the U.S. and one that would allow it to market the product as less harmful than smoking conventional cigarettes. The company has said it expects a decision by the end of the year. If the FDA clears the product, Altria will sell it in the U.S.

Altria declined CNBC's request for comment.

—CNBC's Lauren Hirsch contributed to this report

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