Philip Morris in merger talks with Altria; e-cigarettes at stake

A merger of the two would create a company with a market value of more than $200bn.

    Analysts see the proposed deal as a bid to dominate the fast-growing electronic-cigarette market [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]
    Analysts see the proposed deal as a bid to dominate the fast-growing electronic-cigarette market [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

    Philip Morris International Inc and Altria Group Inc are discussing an all-stock merger, potentially reuniting two of the world's largest tobacco companies in a bid to dominate the fast-growing electronic-cigarette market.

    Shares of Altria, which was spun out of Philip Morris more than a decade ago, rose more than six percent but later erased gains to trade 3.3 percent lower after CNBC reported the deal had no premium. Philip Morris shares fell 6.8 percent as some analysts questioned the rationale for the deal, which would reunite the two owners of the Marlboro cigarette brand.

    A merger of the two would create a company with a market value of more than $200bn, representing the fourth-largest deal of all time, according to Refinitiv data.

    Analysts and investors have long speculated the companies would merge, given mounting pressure from declining cigarette sales and the need to invest in other sources of revenue. Philip Morris, which operates outside the United States, has developed a heated tobacco product called iQOS. Altria, which operates in the US, owns a 35 percent stake in vaping company Juul Labs Inc.

    Industry-wide cigarette sales volumes tumbled 4.5 percent on an adjusted basis in 2018, according to analysts at Cowen. In contrast, the e-cigarette market was worth about $11bn in 2018 and is expected to grow at more than eight percent annually over the next five years, according to research firm Mordor Intelligence.

    In April, Philip Morris won approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to sell iQOS in the US, a big win for a company looking to move beyond traditional cigarettes.

    "With disruption facing the world of tobacco, we can see some merit in a re-merger," Bernstein analyst Callum Elliott said in a note.

    He added that "the combined entity - Philip Morris 2.0 - could present a united front" on next-generation products such as iQOS, and that it could "go about a coordinated global brand-building exercise the same way Philip Morris originally built Marlboro".

    Up in smoke

    Unlike combustible cigarettes, iQOS devices heat tobacco-filled sticks wrapped in paper, generating an aerosol that contains nicotine. They are different from e-cigarettes such as the popular Juul device, which vaporises a nicotine-filled liquid.

    Altria already can market iQOS in the US under a licensing agreement, which includes royalty payments to Philip Morris. At the same time, Altria could potentially tap into Philip Morris’s global footprint to aid in Juul’s international expansion.

    In a note to clients on Tuesday, Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog said a deal would create the leading global nicotine company by improving cash flow and accelerating the worldwide roll-out of Juul and iQOS.

    Philip Morris has annual revenue of nearly $30bn, while Altria generated about $20bn last year. Both companies said there could be no assurance a deal would be reached.

    Any deal would need to be approved by the companies' respective boards and shareholders.

    Bernstein analyst Elliott said the details of a December agreement between Juul and Altria could complicate things. Language in that agreement prevents Altria from owning or working with competitors in the "e-vapor business".

    Philip Morris has developed a line of e-cigarette products to compete with Juul, called iQOS MESH. It planned to launch them later this year in Europe.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency