Marijuana has become increasingly popular, as many states across the U.S. have legalized the drug for medical and/or recreational purposes, and more are considering doing so. Meanwhile, some investors have sought to cash in on the trend, but until now, they've had only a limited number of investment choices available to them. But many have wondered whether Big Tobacco might eventually choose to get in on the legal marijuana business, offering their shareholders an easier way to profit from the drug.

Earlier this week, global tobacco company Imperial Brands (OTC:IMBB.Y) made a move that could signal the beginning of a budding relationship between the tobacco and marijuana industries. Its action will likely draw a response from fellow global players Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM) and British American Tobacco (NYSE:BTI), as well as U.S. giants Altria (NYSE:MO) and Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI).

Marijuana growing facility.

Image source: Getty Images.

What Imperial Brands did

Imperial Brands said earlier this week that it had named Simon Langelier as a non-executive member of its board of directors on June 12. Langelier's long history with Philip Morris gives him a pedigree that looks perfectly suited the role. In particular, the new Imperial director has worked in areas across the globe, including Latin America, Asia, and the Eastern Europe-Middle East-Africa region. He also served as president of Philip Morris' next-generation products division, which has been working on some of its highest-growth prospects.

However, what makes Langelier's appointment interesting is that he's also the chairman of a company called PharmaCielo: A Canada-based supplier of medicinal-grade cannabis oil extracts and related products. As Imperial Chairman Mark Williamson said, Langelier's "extensive international experience in tobacco and in wider consumer adjacencies will be a great asset to the board."

The appointment seems to be in line with Imperial's broader corporate goals. In late 2015, it announced that it would change its name from Imperial Tobacco, saying that the change would "better reflect the dynamic, brand-focused business that we are now." The decision raised speculation that Imperial would diversify its tobacco-heavy business to expand other consumer products, including the blu e-cigarette line that it obtained from Lorillard after Lorillard's merger with Reynolds American. Yet more than a year later, Imperial still gets almost all of its revenue from tobacco. That has fed speculation after the naming of Langelier that Imperial might make forays into marijuana as well as more fully embracing cigarette alternatives like the heated tobacco products that Philip Morris has introduced so effectively -- and that rival British American Tobacco has sought to duplicate.

Will Big Tobacco look to become Big Marijuana?

So far, Big Tobacco companies haven't talked much about marijuana. A search of conference calls and investor presentations from Altria, Reynolds American, and British American Tobacco on S&P Capital IQ revealed no mention of getting into the marijuana business. Back in 2012, Philip Morris CEO Andre Calantzopoulos said that despite talk of legalization in Canada and other jurisdictions, his company had no plans to enter the marijuana business, quipping, "I have enough cuts to scheme with the [reduced-risk products]."

Yet with sales volumes of traditional cigarettes on the decline, the prospect of using established production and distribution networks for marijuana-based products has to be tempting. At Altria, cigarette shipments were down 2.7% in the most recent quarter, and Philip Morris suffered an even sharper 11.5% decline. British American recently said it expects to outperform the industry's 4% volume decline, but adverse inventory level changes pushed Reynolds American's cigarette volume down 4.4% in its most recent quarter.

Still, at this point in the U.S., the contradiction between marijuana being illegal at the federal level but legal in certain states is a huge impediment to big players like Altria and Reynolds American getting into the business. Another issue involves competition from illegal sellers. Even in jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana, extensive regulation and taxation has encouraged black market transactions. For marijuana to make economic sense as a business for Big Tobacco players, there has to be enough profit left after taxes to make it worthwhile.

Where there's smoke...

Imperial Brands' move to name a cannabis expert to its board of directors is an interesting development in the evolving story of how Big Tobacco and the growing marijuana industry might come together. For now, though, investors in tobacco companies both internationally and within the U.S. shouldn't expect any quick move to incorporate marijuana operations into those businesses.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.