RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Altria Group's first-quarter profit dropped 15% as the Marlboro maker sold fewer cigarettes and its year-ago results benefited from lower expenses from a long-standing legal settlement.

The owner of the nation's biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, posted earnings Thursday of $1.17 billion, or $0.59 per share. That's down from $1.38 billion, or $0.69 a share, in the year-ago period when it recorded more credits for disputed payments under the 1998 multistate tobacco settlement.

Excluding one-time items, earnings were $0.57 per share, matching Wall Street expectations.

Altria, based in Richmond, Va., said that revenue, excluding excise taxes, increased less than a percent to $4.01 billion as higher prices helped offset a decline in volumes. Analysts polled by FactSet expected $4.03 billion.

Cigarette shipments fell 2.5% to 29 billion cigarettes. Adjusting for trade inventory changes, cigarette volumes fell 3.5%, compared with the total industry decline of about 4%.

Volumes of its premium Marlboro brand fell more than 2% but its share of the retail U.S. market rose 0.2 percentage points to 43.8%. The company's share of the U.S. retail market rose 0.2 percentage points to 50.7%.

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.

Adjusted volumes for its smokeless tobacco brands such as Copenhagen and Skoal grew about 6%. Volumes for its Black & Mild cigars rose less than a percent.

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