Altria earns miss in 4Q despite strong cigarette sales

WASHINGTON (AP) — Marlboro sales fueled an uptick in revenue at Altria, though the tobacco giant was weighed down by charges across its sprawling business which includes beer, wine and e-cigarettes.

Cigarette sales have held up better during the pandemic than other types of consumer products, and overall revenue for the owner of Philip Morris USA was better than Wall Street had expected. The same can not be said about profits as Altria suffered losses elsewhere, including its investment in Anheuser-Busch InBev.

The Virginia company posted a profit of $1.03, or 99 cents per share, when adjusted for one=time charges. That’s a couple cents shy of what Wall Street had expected, according to a survey of analysts by Zacks Investment Research.

Altria, which also sells Copenhagen chewing tobacco and St. Michelle wine, reported revenue of $6.3 billion. Its adjusted revenue was $5.06 billion, which still topped forecasts.

Shares rose about 2.5% Thursday.

CEO Billy Gifford vowed to push ahead with Altria’s long campaign to transition its business away from cigarettes to less deadly alternatives, including e-cigarettes and oral nicotine pouches. Gifford took over last spring after longtime CEO and chairman Howard Willard retired.

“Our tobacco businesses were resilient and we made steady progress toward our 10-year vision to responsibly transition adult smokers to a noncombustible future,” Gifford said on an earnings call Thursday.

Altria has been working for years to shift more of its business away from its legacy tobacco products with smoking rates in steady decline. The company took a massive $13 billion stake in beleaguered vaping startup Juul Labs, which has been hit by a wave of lawsuits and regulatory restrictions due to underage use of its high-nicotine vape pods.

That investment faces additional threats from federal regulators who are suing to break up that multi-billion deal, saying the partnership was effectively an agreement not to compete in the U.S. vaping market. That case is expected to go to court later this year.

Separately, Altria is expanding marketing of a heat-not-burn cigarette alternative, IQOS, to four new cities in 2021. It’s part of a gradual rollout of the first-of-its-kind device, which the Food and Drug Administration ruled can reduce exposure to deadly chemicals contained in cigarettes.

The company is also expanding sales of a recently acquired nicotine pouch on!, which it said is now available in 78,000 retail stores.

Still, Altria remains dependent on cigarettes for the vast majority of its profits.

The company said cigarettes and cigar sales increased nearly 8% in the last quarter of 2020 to $5.56 billion, driven by higher pricing and shipments. The company does not break out its vaping and IQOS business, but the “other” category that includes those products on its balance sheet lost $75 million in the last quarter.

Company executives declined to set guidance for 2021 cigarette sales, noting the uncertain impact of unemployment, quarantines and possible stimulus payments.

Analysts are also wary that Democratic control of Congress and the White House could lead to new regulations and taxes on tobacco and vaping products.

Altria expects full-year earnings in the range of $4.49 to $4.62 per share.

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Elements of this story were generated by Automated Insights (http://automatedinsights.com/ap) using data from Zacks Investment Research. Access a Zacks stock report on MO at https://www.zacks.com/ap/MO

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