Altria Blazes On

The tobacco giant sets itself apart with new product plans.

Colleen Paulson
Colleen Paulson
Sep 11, 2009 at 12:00AM

In the new world of big tobacco, Altria (NYSE:MO) seems to be marching to the beat of its own drummer.

Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI) and Lorillard (NYSE:LO) have joined forces to continue their fight with the government over increased tobacco regulation. Last week, the dynamic duo launched a lawsuit questioning the free speech (i.e., advertising) ramifications of FDA control over the tobacco industry. Kissing cousin Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM) is fighting its own battles with British American Tobacco (NYSE:BTI) for the title of big-time international tobacco player.

Meanwhile, Altria announced plans to expand its product portfolio with Copenhagen-brand wintergreen smokeless tobacco. The new product could drive Copenhagen's share of the segment from 23% to 32%, according to a company spokesperson. In addition, the company is introducing a value-priced L&M menthol cigarette product, and it continues to look for growth opportunities with its Marlboro Snus.

It's been a year since Altria bought snuff-and-wine connoisseur UST, so it's about time for the product development and overall integration synergies to kick into gear with the new Copenhagen product. Interestingly, Altria says that it has no plans to sell off UST's wine business, although the recent problems that wine and spirits makers like Diageo (NYSE:DEO) face probably make it an inopportune time to divest the booze business. Besides, Altria owns 28% of SABMiller (OTC: SBMRY), so the company isn't completely uninformed on the alcohol market.

As Reynolds American and Lorillard battle for advertising supremacy, you've got to wonder how these lawsuits will affect their bottom lines. Promotion of tobacco requires big bucks across the board; estimates suggest that the leading cigarette producers spent more than $13 billion in promotion expenses in 2005. The majority of this spending involves discounts to retailers, as opposed to straight-up advertising, but make no mistake: These new advertising constraints could have multibillion-dollar effects.

In the end, though, Altria comes out smelling more like a rose than a burned-out cigarette. The company gets to support the new FDA legislation of the tobacco industry and maintain a relatively decent public image. It thus avoids the costs of an expensive lawsuit, while continuing to introduce new products and expand its share in a declining market. With this scenario playing out, and a P/E of 12.2 and annual yield of 7.3%, I'd say that Altria has smoldering growth potential for investors in the short and long terms.

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