Altria Q4 Profit Falls as Cigarette Sales Decrease

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Altria Group's fourth-quarter profit dropped 56% as the Marlboro maker sold fewer cigarettes and recorded charges related to paying off debt early.

Its adjusted earnings and revenue narrowly missed Wall Street expectations, and its shares slipped in premarket trading.

The owner of the nation's biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, posted earnings Thursday of $488 million, or $0.24 per share. That's down from $1.1 billion, or $0.55 a share, in the year-ago period.

Excluding one-time items, earnings were $0.57 per share, missing Wall Street expectations by a penny.

Altria Group, based in Richmond, Va., said that revenue, excluding excise taxes, fell 1% to $4.4 billion as higher prices helped offset a decline in volumes. Analysts polled by FactSet expected $4.5 billion.

The company also said Thursday it expects 2014 full-year adjusted earnings between $2.52 and $2.59 per share. Analysts expect $2.57 per share.

Cigarette volumes fell about 6% to 31.8 billion cigarettes compared with a year ago. Adjusting for trade inventory changes, cigarette volumes fell 4%, on par with the total industry decline.

Marlboro volumes fell 5.7%, while volume for its other premium brands fell by more than 11%, and volumes for discount cigarette brands like L&M increased 2%.

Its share of the U.S. retail market rose 0.3 percentage points to 50.7%. Marlboro's share of the U.S. market rose 0.2 percentage points to 43.7%.

The Marlboro brand has been under pressure from competitors and lower-priced cigarette brands amid economic uncertainty and high unemployment.

That's on top of the tax hikes, smoking bans and a social stigma that have made the cigarette business tougher.

Altria and others are focusing on cigarette alternatives -- such as electronic cigarettes, cigars, snuff and chewing tobacco -- for future sales growth because the decline in cigarette smoking is expected to continue.

Volumes of Altria's smokeless tobacco brands such as Copenhagen and Skoal fell 4.3% from a year ago. Adjusting for one less shipping day and trade inventory changes, Altria says its smokeless volumes grew about 5%. For the quarter, the company's smokeless tobacco brands had about 55% of the market, though smokeless tobacco is a tiny market compared with cigarettes.

Volumes for its Black & Mild cigars rose 8.5% during the quarter.

Altria Group also owns a wine business, holds a voting stake in brewer SABMiller, and has a financial services division.

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