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Cigarette Stocks Have Gotten Burned This Week. Could Things Get Even Worse for Big Tobacco?

Sy Mukherjee
Cigarette Stocks Have Gotten Burned This Week. Could Things Get Even Worse for Big Tobacco?

Big tobacco stocks have had one of their worst weeks in years, with Marlboro manufacturer Philip Morris International (PMI) down more than 17% (including its single biggest one-day share price decline in a decade Thursday), Altria down more than 10%, and British American Tobacco (whose subsidiaries include Camel cigarettes maker Reynolds American) down 9%.

So why are all these cigarette stocks getting smoked? The bear run kicked off with what, for the industry, was a foreboding sign about the state of business: Philip Morris reported its tobacco shipments had fallen even more than expected. That’s an issue that’s dogged Big Tobacco for a while now as smoking rates plummet. But what was potentially more troubling to companies like Altria and British American Tobacco was PMI’s admission the next generation of tobacco products meant to make up for declining traditional cigarette sales—such as “heat not burn” devices like the iQOS—appear to be stalling in certain global markets like Japan.

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That could be a long-term problem for Philip Morris and its ilk if it can’t step up its marketing game in a crowded space. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under Commissioner Scott Gottlieb may not be making things much easier with aggressive plans to limit nicotine levels in traditional cigarettes and skepticism about firms’ claims that devices like the iQOS cut health risks compared to conventional cigarettes. A group of U.S. Senators recently sent the FDA a letter urging the agency to reject Philip Morris’ request to market iQOS as a “modified-risk” tobacco product, which might give consumers the impression that it’s a healthier alternative.

Still, some industry analysts believe these devices will ultimately be the wave of the future and help tobacco companies like Philip Morris transform themselves by shifting to smokeless and nicotine-vapor products.

“We continue to believe in iQOS and its power to reshape this company,” said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Christopher Growe in a research note. “After one quarter of a minor setback in development in Japan, we are loath to change our long-term estimates significantly.”