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Marlboro maker Altria opts to end non-compete deal with Juul

FILE PHOTO: Illustration shows Altria logo

(Reuters) -Marlboro maker Altria Group Inc said it had exercised the option to be released from its non-compete deal with Juul Labs Inc, nearly four years after buying a 35% stake in the e-cigarette maker that was then at the zenith of its popularity.

Altria is looking to permanently terminate its non-competition obligations to Juul, give up certain rights including its board designation rights and reduce its voting power, according to a regulatory filing on Friday.

In July, Altria slashed the value of its stake in Juul to $450 million, down from the original value of $12.8 billion, allowing itself the option to be released from the non-compete clause and invest in or engage with any other e-vapor business.

However, it did not seek to be released from the obligations at the time, and said it saw value in its investment rights in Juul.

"The decision to terminate our non-compete maximizes our flexibility to compete in the e-vapor space while maintaining our economic interest in Juul," Altria said on Friday.

A change in its stance means Altria could go it alone or pursue other vaping product makers. Privately owned Njoy, which has already succeeded with its premarket tobacco product application process, could be a takeover target, a few analysts said.

"It's more likely that Altria will seek to buy its way back into the e-cigarette category (which represents 7% of U.S. nicotine sales)," Cowen analyst Vivien Azer said.

"This decision ... increases the financial and strategic options we can pursue to secure our business and address the impact of the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration's) now stayed order," a Juul spokesperson said.

The FDA in June blocked Juul from selling its nicotine products, after a review of data submitted by the company. Juul quickly appealed to temporarily block the order.

(Reporting by Praveen Paramasivam and Ananya Mariam Rajesh in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli)