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Here's an unsurprising news flash: Lawmakers hate the tobacco industry. In recent months, the tobacco industry has faced legal attacks like never before. These attacks have gone far beyond the usual class-action lawsuits brought upon it by consumers and have instead come from large authoritative bodies laying down the law.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been doing their best to curb the appeal of smoking. The CDC spent $54 million on its graphic 12-week television advertising campaign to get consumers to kick their nasty habit -- and according to traffic visits to its help-quit website and phone calls to its help-quit hotline, they worked very well. The FDA has been recently pushing tobacco producers for more concrete statistics about the make-up of their cigarettes.
As I've suggested in the past, this is bad news for U.S.-based tobacco companies like Altria (NYSE: MO ) , Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI ) , and Lorillard (NYSE: LO ) . Both Altria and Reynolds have responded by slashing their workforce by double digits over the coming years as cigarette shipping volumes have stagnated. Lorillard has been the lone bright spot, bucking the trend and raising its dividend in the process.
I've often suggested that the safe haven for investors who are intent on profiting from consumers' tobacco addiction is to look internationally. Well, that safety net just had a few holes cut in it.
Australia's High Court upheld a groundbreaking decision that will require tobacco companies, including Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM ) and British American Tobacco (NYSE: BTI ) , to remove their brand imaging from cigarette packaging as of December. That brand image will be replaced by graphic images of the dangers of smoking (very similar to the CDC's ads), and the packaging will be available in the color of olive only. A brand's name may still be used on the packaging, but it will be relegated to a standard font and a much smaller surface area on the packaging.
International tobacco suppliers like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco had argued that the removal of its brand image represented an acquisition of owned intellectual property without due compensation. Australia's High Court struck down that assertion and now sets the table for the European Union to potentially introduce similar legislation, using Australia as its precedent.
However, before you freak out -- don't! Australia represents a very small piece of the international pie for Philip Morris and British American Tobacco. For Philip Morris, which practically counts the entire globe as its customer, a much more damaging blow would be if other parts of Southeast Asia or China itself were to take up such harsh legislation. That's where the growth is for international tobacco providers at present, and it seems very unlikely that we'd see legislation like what we've seen from Australia in other Southeast Asian countries anytime soon.
In the meantime, keep your eye on what, if anything, the EU does in response to this legislation, and, once again, do your best to avoid highly legislated countries (ahem, the United States, ahem) if you choose to invest in the tobacco sector.
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