Altria Is Still Smoking the Competition

The king of the ‘sin’ stocks is still a great investment.

altria-mo-stock-dividend-stocksAs a matter of fact, things are shaping up to be a banner year for A-rated Altria Group Inc (NYSE:MO).

Altria maintains more than a 50% market share in cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products in the U.S. Altria’s brand portfolio includes well known names such as Marlboro, Copenhagen, Skoal and Black & Mild. Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products make up more than 75% of Altria’s total value.

Yet, Altria has only recently made a move into the electronic cigarette (e-cig) sector, with the launch of its MarkTen brand in test markets in late 2013. But given MO’s command of shelf space in locations that sell tobacco products, such as gas stations and convenience stores, MarkTen is quickly gaining market share.

What’s more, the Food and Drug Administration has been very cautious (read ‘slow’) to develop regulations for this new sector. Since the smoke is only water vapor and contains no harmful tar, it doesn’t fall into the typical tobacco categories. But since it contains nicotene, it has the same addictive qualities as tobacco products.

The likely outcome will be regulations or at least ‘interim safety guidelines,’ which aren’t rules but standards, that can then be crafted into regulations. A company can build around the guidelines in the hopes that the regulations will be largely built around these guidelines.

The big piece will be if manufacturers have to test their products. If that’s the case, it will prove very expensive for small players in the sector. That gives Big Tobacco the upper hand. And from a government perspective, it’s a lot easier to regulate two or three major players than try to regulate scores, including cheap imports.

Not surprisingly, this wouldn’t be the first time Washington helped out Big Tobacco. A few years ago, Congress passed legislation that raised the taxes on tobacco sold by ‘roll your own’ (RYO) tobacco companies. The reasoning was, major cigarette-makers had to pay large taxes on their finished products, which ate into margins. The RYO crowd got around that by simply selling tobacco. While not a big sector of the market, it was nonetheless in both Big Tobacco’s interest — loss of market share — and the government’s — loss of tax revenue — to hammer this nascent industry.

The same will like happen with e-cigarettes, where deep-pocketed companies will win the day by either driving competitors out of the market or buying them, with the help of favorable FDA regulations and other legislation.

What more, there’s the little-talked-about Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act (FETRA) that expires this year and will noticeably boost earnings per share.

Slipped into the American Job Creations Act in 2004, FETRA forced tobacco companies to buy out tobacco farmers. So, tobacco farmers could transition to new cash crops. The American Job Creations Act expired last year, which means Altria will free up about $300 million that it used to have to pay out under the plan.

Perfect timing for launching a serious e-cigarette campaign in the U.S. and through marketing and licensing arrangements with Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM).

Altria still has plenty of headroom here and is a great long-term “buy.”

Louis Navellier is a renowned growth investor. He is the editor of five investing newsletters: Blue Chip GrowthEmerging GrowthUltimate GrowthFamily Trust and Platinum Growth. His most popular service, Blue Chip Growth, has a track record of beating the market 3:1 over the last 14 years. He uses a combination of quantitative and fundamental analysis to identify market-beating stocks. Mr. Navellier has made his proven formula accessible to investors via his free, online stock rating tool, Louis Navellier may hold some of the aforementioned securities in one or more of his newsletters.

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