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Edited Transcript of MO earnings conference call or presentation 30-Jan-20 2:00pm GMT

Q4 2019 Altria Group Inc Earnings Call

RICHMOND Feb 5, 2020 (Thomson StreetEvents) -- Edited Transcript of Altria Group Inc earnings conference call or presentation Thursday, January 30, 2020 at 2:00:00pm GMT

TEXT version of Transcript

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Corporate Participants

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* Howard A. Willard

Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO

* Mac Livingston

Altria Group, Inc. - VP of IR?

* William F. Gifford

Altria Group, Inc. - CFO

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Conference Call Participants

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* Adam Justin Spielman

Citigroup Inc, Research Division - MD and European Tobacco and Beverage Analyst

* Christopher Robert Growe

Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Incorporated, Research Division - MD & Analyst

* Gaurav Jain

Barclays Bank PLC, Research Division - Research Analyst

* Michael Scott Lavery

Piper Sandler & Co., Research Division - Director & Senior Research Analyst

* Nik Modi

RBC Capital Markets, Research Division - MD of Tobacco, Household Products and Beverages & Lead Consumer Staples Analyst

* Owen Michael Bennett

Jefferies LLC, Research Division - Equity Analyst

* Pamela Kaufman

Morgan Stanley, Research Division - Senior Analyst

* Priya Joy Ohri-Gupta

Barclays Bank PLC, Research Division - Director & Fixed Income Research Analyst

* Robert Amos Rampton

UBS Investment Bank, Research Division - Associate Analyst

* Stephen Robert R. Powers

Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division - Research Analyst

* Vivien Nicole Azer

Cowen and Company, LLC, Research Division - MD & Senior Research Analyst

* Jennifer Maloney

* Tiffany Kary

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Presentation

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Operator [1]

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Good day, and welcome to the Altria Group 2019 Fourth Quarter and Full Year Earnings Conference Call. Today's call is scheduled to last about 1 hour, including remarks by Altria's management and the question-and-answer session. (Operator Instructions)

I would now like to turn the call over to Mr. Mac Livingston, Vice President, Investor Relations for Altria Client Services. Please go ahead, sir.

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Mac Livingston, Altria Group, Inc. - VP of IR? [2]

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Thanks, Brandy. Good morning, and thank you for joining us. We're here this morning with Howard Willard, Altria's CEO; and Billy Gifford, our CFO, to discuss Altria's 2019 fourth quarter and full year business results. Earlier today, we issued a press release providing these results. The release, presentation and quarterly metrics are all available on our website at altria.com and through the Altria Investor App.

During our call today, unless otherwise stated, we're comparing results to the same period in 2018. Our remarks contain forward-looking and cautionary statements and projections of future results. Please review the forward-looking and cautionary statement section at the end of today's earnings release for various factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from projections. Future dividend payments and share repurchases remain subject to the discretion of Altria's Board. Share repurchases also depend on marketplace conditions and other factors.

Altria reports its financial results in accordance with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles. Today's call will contain various operating results on both a reported and adjusted basis. Adjusted results exclude special items that affect comparisons with reported results. Descriptions of these non-GAAP financial measures and reconciliations are included in today's earnings release and on our website at altria.com.

With that, I'll turn the call over to Howard.

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [3]

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Thanks, Mac, and good morning, everyone. 2019 was a dynamic year for the tobacco category. For Altria, it was a year characterized by 2 distinct stories: the outstanding performance of Altria's core tobacco businesses and significant progress advancing our noncombustible business platform alongside disappointing performance from our JUUL investment.

Across our businesses, our employees accomplished more with less and responsibly delivered outstanding results. Despite unexpected challenges with our investment in JUUL, which led to impairment charges and reported losses, we grew adjusted diluted earnings per share by 5.8% and continue to reward our shareholders with growing cash dividends. In 2019, we paid $6 billion in dividends to shareholders and increased the dividend for the 54th time in 50 years.

Our core tobacco businesses delivered strong financial performance, with each of the smokeable and smokeless product segments delivering high single-digit adjusted operating companies income growth, significantly expanding their adjusted operating companies income margins and maintaining strength on their leading premium brands. In fact, if you look at the performance of our smokeable and smokeless products segments on a combined basis over the past 5 years, 2019 was a high watermark for combined adjusted OCI and margin expansion. In addition, we exceeded our $575 million cost reduction target, made significant progress advancing and building our noncombustible business platform with the launch of IQOS in 2 lead markets and the completion of the on! transaction. And we successfully advocated for moving the legal age to purchase all tobacco products to 21 to address social access concerns among youth.

Turning to JUUL. We are disappointed in the performance of our JUUL investment in 2019, and we recorded a second impairment of the JUUL investment, which Billy will discuss in more detail shortly. It's a critical time for the e-vapor category, and we believe manufacturers must take responsible steps in the short-term to protect the long-term opportunity that the category presents for adult smokers looking for alternatives. We believe that the e-vapor category in its current form needs a reset, and we believe the most important next steps to create a sustainable path forward are FDA's review and ultimate decisions on PMTA filings and driving down youth usage of e-vapor.

This morning, we announced that we've reached an agreement with JUUL to revise some of the terms governing our investment. We've agreed with JUUL to continue providing regulatory affairs services, including supporting JUUL's efforts to prepare and submit its PMTA filings by May 2020. And we will discontinue all other services by the end of March 2020. Our regulatory affairs team is working collaboratively with JUUL on its PMTA effort and we're committed to helping JUUL achieve this critical milestone. We also agreed that JUUL will create a new or independent board structure after we receive antitrust clearance from the FTC. We believe the new board structure will provide diverse perspectives and independent expertise to help JUUL's management team successfully and responsibly navigate the very dynamic e-vapor market going forward.

For Altria, we remain committed to preventing kids and non-tobacco users from using tobacco products. According to the 2019 Monitoring the Future, underage use of cigarettes is at a historic low at 3.7%, down more than 85% from its 1997 peak. Although this is significant progress, we're troubled by the alarming rise in youth e-vapor use. This is why in early 2019, we launched a national campaign to raise the minimum tobacco purchase age to 21 and worked persistently with state and federal lawmakers to support this legislation. In December, Congress enacted landmark federal legislation, moving the legal age to purchase all tobacco products to 21. We have much more work ahead of us in reversing the youth e-vapor trends, and our efforts will not stop at Tobacco 21.

We must continue to advance harm reduction. There are approximately 40 million adult smokers in the U.S. today, with more than half interested in alternative products. While JUUL forges its way in an ever-changing e-vapor category, we remain highly focused on our portfolio approach with alternative products like IQOS and on!. We want our organization, including our sales force, to most effectively and responsibly advance the noncombustible portfolio options we're building, and we're moving forward on these opportunities responsibly and with increased resources.

With IQOS, we're encouraged by early interest from adult smokers and excitement from the trade. HeatSticks are now distributed across more than 500 retail stores in Atlanta and Richmond combined. Both launch markets include an innovative retail ecosystem that focuses on the consumer journey of awareness, engagement, trial, purchase and conversion. We now have more than 100 trained IQOS professionals to provide guided trials. We continue to advance our commercialization plans and are gathering insights from our lead markets to inform them going forward.

Philip Morris International's MRTP application for IQOS remains pending with the FDA, and we remain optimistic about its authorization. Additionally, PMI plans to submit a supplemental PMTA in the coming months for IQOS 3. The device offers a more premium and modern design and a rapid charge battery compared to the currently authorized 2.4 device. We plan to capitalize on our first-mover advantage while considering the opportunities presented by an FDA-authorized reduced risk claim for IQOS 2.4 and the launch of a more modern device.

In oral nicotine pouches, we're advancing our plans quickly in this rapidly growing category, focusing on regulatory, manufacturing and distribution efforts. First, our Helix subsidiary expects to submit its PMTAs for on! by the May 2020 deadline. Second, our best engineers are building manufacturing capability for on! at our Richmond manufacturing center, and we expect to begin manufacturing there this quarter. We are targeting annualized manufacturing capacity of 50 million cans by midyear and 75 million cans by the end of 2020. on! can be purchased on its premium branded website through a robust age verification platform and is now sold nationally in 15,000 stores, including Circle K, Sheetz and Murphy USA, representing 3 of the top 5 retail chain accounts for smokeless volume. The on! brand team will use our adult tobacco consumer database to communicate responsibly with adult tobacco consumers about on! and its broad portfolio. In addition, the on! team plans to enhance the packaging to build brand equity and increase the visibility of the broad range of nicotine strengths and flavors to address the varying preferences of adult smokers and dippers.

As e-vapor goes through a period of transition, we believe it's an opportune time to further invest in our plans in heated tobacco and oral nicotine. The strength of our core tobacco businesses provides us with the financial flexibility to make these investments as we capitalize on our first-mover advantage in heated tobacco and on!'s compelling proposition and broad portfolio. We enter 2020 with continued focus on harm reduction and preparing for a future where adult tobacco consumers overwhelmingly prefer noncombustible products over combustible products. We look forward to sharing more at CAGNY.

Let's turn to our financial outlook. For our JUUL investment, we now expect HSR resolution in the first half of 2020. Upon antitrust clearance, we expect to account for our equity investment in JUUL using the fair value option. Under this option, Altria's income statement will include any cash dividends received from the investment and quarterly changes in the fair value of the investment. Quarterly changes in the fair value of the investment will be treated as a special item and excluded from adjusted diluted EPS. We don't currently expect to receive equity earnings contributions from JUUL over the next 3 years. Therefore, we've lowered our 2020 through 2022 compounded annual adjusted diluted EPS earnings growth objective to 4% to 7% from our previously announced objective of 5% to 8%.

For our 2020 guidance, we expect to deliver full year adjusted diluted earnings per share of $4.39 to $4.51. This range represents a growth rate of 4% to 7% from a 2019 adjusted diluted EPS base of $4.22. The 2020 guidance includes increased investments in our noncombustible platform and 1 extra shipping day in the first quarter. We'll remind you that in 2019, the benefits from our annualized cost reduction program were uneven and ramped up as the year progressed.

I'll now turn it over to Billy to provide more detail on our 2019 performance.

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [4]

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Thanks, Howard, and good morning, everyone. We expect the tobacco category to remain dynamic with continued evolution in adult tobacco consumer preferences and tobacco regulation. We believe we're well positioned to deliver steady performance in this environment and that our enhanced business platform allows us to continue to deliver strong financial results and generate significant cash return to shareholders, commercialize noncombustible tobacco products to provide satisfying alternatives for adult tobacco consumers and participate in the adjacent and emerging cannabis category through our investment in Cronos.

As Howard mentioned earlier, in 2019, our core tobacco segments were resilient and delivered excellent performance against their stated objectives. In the smokeable products segment, the segment grew adjusted OCI by 8.6% and expanded its adjusted OCI margins by 3.9 percentage points to 54.5%. Higher pricing, significant cost savings and more efficient promotional spending more than offset lower cigarette volume to drive strong income growth for the year. The smokeable products segment's price realization was up 8.4% for the year. More efficient promotional spending, enabled through data analytics, contributed to the segment's strong net pricing.

Marlboro retail share remained stable at 43.1%, down 0.1% versus prior year. Product expansions, with innovative reseal packaging and other brand equity investments, continue to support Marlboro's performance. The Marlboro Rewards equity program, launched nationally a year ago, continues to exceed our expectations, with over 2.6 million adult smokers enrolled and 200 million pack codes entered since its launch. Marlboro coupons are driving repeat purchases and remain the #1 redeemed item.

At the industry level, we estimate that U.S. cigarette volumes declined by 4.5% in the fourth quarter and by 5.5% for the full year when adjusted for trade inventory movements and other factors. We continue to believe that accelerated movement of adult smokers to other categories, primarily e-vapor, and increased exclusive e-vapor category usage drove the incremental year-over-year decline. For cigarette price elasticity, we'll remind investors that this component of the decline rate is based on retail price changes that include excise taxes, manufacture pricing and trade margin changes.

For the full year 2019, cigarette industry prices at retail increased by approximately 4%. When this is multiplied by the elasticity coefficient of negative 0.3%, the result is a volume impact of 1.2% for the year. Given the recent regulatory and legislative developments in e-vapor and the national move to 21 as a legal age to purchase all tobacco products, we expect cigarette industry volume trends to remain dynamic. Taking these factors into account, we project full year 2020 adjusted industry cigarette volumes to decline 4% to 6%. However, due to our expectations for continued volatility across tobacco categories, we're no longer providing a multiyear forecast for U.S. cigarette industry volume declines.

In discount, we estimate the total discount category share was up 0.4% for the full year but remained in line with historical share levels at 24.2%. While we have ceded some share in branded discount, PM USA continues to be pleased with L&M's performance and its increased profitability over time.

In cigars, JMC had a great year, with 3.1% volume growth exceeding the machine-made large cigar category. We're pleased with the continued strength of Black & Mild and the profitable tipped cigars segment and the cigars business's contribution to smokeable segment adjusted OCI growth.

Our smokeless products segment performed well in 2019, delivering more than $1.6 billion in adjusted OCI and maintaining strength behind Copenhagen. The smokeless products segment's adjusted OCI increased by 9.7%, and adjusted OCI margins expanded by 3 percentage points to 71.7% as higher pricing, more efficient promotional spending and lower costs more than offset lower volume. Copenhagen continued to lead the category and grew its share by 0.3% for the year to 34.8%. When adjusted for trade inventory movements and calendar differences, adjusted smokeless volumes declined by an estimated 3% in 2019. In the last 6 months, total smokeless industry volume decreased by an estimated 1%. We continue to believe that adult dipper interest in the oral nicotine pouch and e-vapor categories impacted smokeless volumes.

Moving to e-vapor. The e-vapor category experienced rapid growth through the first 9 months, growing volume approximately 35%. The category's growth was driven almost entirely by JUUL. Late in the third quarter, news of vapor-related illnesses and deaths and the release of government survey data showing a significant rise in use -- e-vapor use drove legislative and regulatory action. Several states moved to ban flavored or all e-vapor products. In the fourth quarter, the e-vapor category declined nearly 8% sequentially, and growth slowed to 3% year-over-year. Also, in the fourth quarter, we estimate JUUL's share of the market declined sequentially to 44% from 48%.

In preparing our quarterly and year-end financials, we performed a valuation analysis of our investment in JUUL. As a result of this analysis, we recorded an additional $4.1 billion impairment to our JUUL investment, primarily driven by the increased number of legal cases pending against JUUL and the expectation that the number of legal cases against JUUL will continue to increase. Since our last quarterly earnings announcement on October 31, 2019, the number of cases pending against JUUL has increased by more than 80%.

For a brief review, in the third quarter, we adjusted expected cash flows from JUUL to reflect slower future e-vapor category growth due to likely regulatory action in the U.S. and various e-vapor bans in the U.S. and internationally. In the fourth quarter, as a result of the legal environment we just described, we increased the discount rate to reflect greater uncertainty around JUUL's future cash flows. The latest impairment brings the current value of our investment to $4.2 billion. As we said earlier, we're disappointed in the performance of the past year and hope JUUL can move forward more constructively.

Turning to our strategic cannabis investment, Cronos. They are executing against a strategy of building differentiated brands and disruptive intellectual property. Last year, Cronos entered the rapidly growing U.S. CBD market through its acquisition of Redwood Holdings, which manufactures and distributes the Lord Jones luxury brand. Cronos has been preparing for cannabis legalization of derivative products, including vaporizers. Cronos also made significant progress with talent acquisition, hiring and filling critical business roles. We believe the U.S. cannabis market, if reasonably regulated and legalized at the federal level, presents a tremendous opportunity, and we're pleased with Cronos' progress in building these key capabilities and business platform.

In alcohol, the results of our -- in our wine segment reflect ongoing challenges in Ste. Michelle's business, which they continue to work to address. Adjusted OCI for the year was $73 million, down nearly 30%, driven primarily by higher cost and promotional investments. Ste. Michelle continues to invest in innovative packaging, digital marketing and brand optimization. For example, 14 Hands is now the #1 selling premium canned wine in 7-Eleven stores. In beer, ABI delivered $875 million in adjusted equity earnings, representing an increase of 8.7% for the year. ABI also contributed nearly $400 million in cash dividends in 2019.

Turning to capital allocation. We repurchased $500 million in shares in the fourth quarter. We had $500 million remaining under our previously announced $1 billion share buyback program and expect to complete the program by the end of this year. And last August, we increased our dividend for the 54th time in the -- 50 years. Our current annualized dividend rate of $3.36 per share represents a dividend yield of 6.8% as of January 27, 2020.

That wraps up our results. Howard and I will be happy to take your questions. While the calls are being compiled, I'll remind you that today's earnings release and our non-GAAP reconciliations are available on altria.com. We've also posted our usual quarterly metrics, which include pricing, inventory and other housekeeping items.

With that, I'll open up the question-and-answer period. Brandy, do we have any questions?

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Questions and Answers

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Operator [1]

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(Operator Instructions) Our first question comes from the line of Chris Growe of Stifel.

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Christopher Robert Growe, Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Incorporated, Research Division - MD & Analyst [2]

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I just wanted to ask a question, if I could, first on -- just looking at volume, particularly in the cigarette category, you had a number -- but since you've a number of puts and takes to volume in 2020 as we look ahead, I guess I wanted -- so I understand you had a little stronger performance for the category in the fourth quarter. As you look ahead, you have Tobacco 21, which could be a drag on volume. I guess I'm curious about like the cross-category movement. It seems like we're seeing a pretty marked deceleration in e-cigarettes, which has been a big drag there. So maybe Tobacco 21 and the hikes with the e-cigarette category, the performance in 2020 and then just to understand how that's going to help affect the volume for cigarettes in 2020.

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [3]

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Sure. I think when you look at cigarette volume declines, our range is 4% to 6%. With regard to Tobacco 21, in the first half of last year, we estimated about 2% of cigarette industry volume was legal age to 20. And so certainly, that's going to be an impact this year going forward. But I would say that you already had a certain number of states that were already at a legal age of purchase of 21 before we made that measurement. And some of that got factored in as more than 50% of the U.S. volume was covered by 21 by midyear. So some of that decline is in the base of the decline rate.

I think with regard to e-vapor, it's hard to precisely predict what's going to happen to that category. But if you just turn to the fourth quarter of this year, its year-over-year growth rate was only 3%. And I think that we really expect that we're going to see a continued slowdown or even maybe a decline in the e-vapor category over the next couple of years. And I think that's going to result in less pressure on the cigarette category. The other products that potentially could impact the cigarette category though, of course, are IQOS and heat-not-burn and the tobacco dry nicotine pouch business.

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Christopher Robert Growe, Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Incorporated, Research Division - MD & Analyst [4]

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Okay. Just one other follow-up question, which is in relation to the cost savings you achieved in 2019, you noted that you hit about a $600 million annualized rate as you exited the year. So just to be clear, does that put you around $150 million in the fourth quarter? And is there any way to discuss what you have left in 2020 coming through from the actions you undertook in 2019?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [5]

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Yes, Chris, you're right. We were ramping up as we went through the year 2019. The biggest annualization will come from the headcount reduction related dollars because remember that most of the headcount exited towards the end of the first quarter. So that will be the biggest part of the annualization.

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Christopher Robert Growe, Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Incorporated, Research Division - MD & Analyst [6]

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And are you willing to say or able to say really how much is left in terms of savings you expect in 2020?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [7]

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Yes, I probably won't go into that level of detail. But I think the $600 million is a good number from an annualized run rate.

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Operator [8]

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Your next question comes from the line of Vivien Azer of Cowen.

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Vivien Nicole Azer, Cowen and Company, LLC, Research Division - MD & Senior Research Analyst [9]

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So I wanted to just touch base on some of your market share aspirations given how dynamic the cigarette industry volume backdrop has proven to be. So Howard, as you think about possibly a worse outlook relative to what you guys used to think, it's not a 3% to 4% anymore. Does that change how you think about holding or modestly growing your cigarette market share?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [10]

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I have to say that we were pleased with our performance last year. We had stability on Marlboro. We had a modest step-down in our share on L&M, but it's at a much higher level of profitability and we had strong profit growth from the cigarette category. So we believe that the performance we had last year was quite strong and quite acceptable.

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Vivien Nicole Azer, Cowen and Company, LLC, Research Division - MD & Senior Research Analyst [11]

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Okay, that's helpful. And just a follow-up on JUUL, can you comment at all about what your expectations are now for revenue mix over the next few years for JUUL domestic versus internationally?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [12]

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Yes. Vivien, from a standpoint of that JUUL has announced, we know there's a reset that's taking place in the U.S., and they've had some announcements, some resets that they're in the process of making internationally. We certainly incorporated both into the valuation analysis, but I'm going to be hesitant to go into the level of detail of the split-up between both international and the U.S. until we see the continuation of their planned rollout.

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Operator [13]

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Your next question comes from the line of Nik Modi of RBC Capital Markets.

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Nik Modi, RBC Capital Markets, Research Division - MD of Tobacco, Household Products and Beverages & Lead Consumer Staples Analyst [14]

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Howard, can you maybe talk about this ceasing of -- helping JUUL with other areas outside of regulatory? Is that just an anticipation of FTC review? I mean, can you just provide any context around that? And I'm assuming that means no coupons and some of the shelf spacing that you've previously discussed?

And then just thinking about 2020, your overall thoughts on just areas that we should be watching out for potential excise tax increases. I haven't reviewed some of the data out there, but maybe you could just give us any areas that you guys are looking at in terms of big tax hikes.

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [15]

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Sure. With regard to the change in the services that we're providing to JUUL, it's not related to the FTC review. We've agreed to continue to provide them with regulatory affairs services, where the 2 teams are working together, I think, quite effectively. And I think that's one of their most important priorities, to file a complete and compelling application in May of 2020 this year.

As you may recall last year, there were a number of services that we offered them. Some of them, they turned down and built their own infrastructure. And then in other places, they built their own infrastructure but on an ad hoc basis utilized some of our services such as the sales force. What we found was that having both JUUL personnel and Altria personnel that were sometimes involved in executing for JUUL at retail, that it created confusion and that it wasn't really an effective way to get the most out of the Altria sales organization. So we ultimately agreed with JUUL that they'd continue to provide a number of the services exclusively and that we'd pull back. And I think that gives us the opportunity to really invest in our sales and distribution organization and having them focus on our 2 core tobacco segments as well as the expansion of IQOS and on!. And we know the kind of impact they can have when they are the sole supporter of our sales and distribution effort, and we're pleased to have some of that capacity back for our other businesses.

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Operator [16]

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Your next question comes from the line of Pamela Kaufman of Morgan Stanley.

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Pamela Kaufman, Morgan Stanley, Research Division - Senior Analyst [17]

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So Billy touched on pricing elasticity in his comments, which do not have appeared to have changed. Are you surprised that there have not been changes to pricing elasticity in the cigarette category given the availability of lower-priced alternatives? And do you see any risk to your ability to continue to increase your realized pricing at a high single-digit rate?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [18]

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Yes, Pamela, when we look at price elasticity and you'll recall, we've had significant price increases. If you go back in history, whether it was related to MSA or excise taxes in a given state, and the price elasticity is held at that negative 0.3% coefficient. From a standpoint of alternative products, when we talk to consumers, pricing doesn't really factor into their top reasons for switching out. There are other reasons mentioned. So it is not surprising that, that hasn't changed.

I'm going to be a little bit reluctant to talk about the future pricing. I will note that pricing is an important part of our algorithm, but there are also puts and takes across the P&L, and we'll assess that as we move forward.

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Pamela Kaufman, Morgan Stanley, Research Division - Senior Analyst [19]

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Okay. And I also wanted to ask about your outlook for JUUL's PMTA submission. Is there any evidence of an improvement in JUUL's youth usage trends based on recent surveys? And would you expect to see a meaningful improvement in JUUL's performance in the next Youth Tobacco Survey?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [20]

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Yes. I don't know that there's been government data released since about the second quarter of last year. But I do expect before the filing deadline of May, there is going to be -- that second quarter survey will be completed. And while it won't be available publicly for a bit of time, it will certainly be available publicly before I would expect the FDA to make any decisions on the PMTAs that they accept as filed.

I think that there is reason to be optimistic that there is going to be an improvement or a reduction in youth usage of e-vapor products because of, I think, 2 very significant developments: The first one is that we now have a minimum age of purchase of 21 nationwide, and I think that will be in effect for a full 3 months before that survey starts to measure youth usage. And then secondly, the FDA has now provided nationwide guidance that's in effect that is going to restrict, certainly for pod-based e-vapor products, the availability of flavors to tobacco and menthol. I think that should have a positive impact on driving down youth usage rates. And certainly, I would expect that the JUUL usage would decline as well. I think how fast it goes down, I think we're going to have to wait and see.

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Operator [21]

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Your next question comes from line of Priya Ohri-Gupta with Barclays.

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Priya Joy Ohri-Gupta, Barclays Bank PLC, Research Division - Director & Fixed Income Research Analyst [22]

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Just a quick follow-up on that last question, around how you expect sort of disposable products to potentially mitigate some of the benefits from e-cigarette youth usage. And then secondly, you guys had a $1 billion bond that came due earlier this month. Just wanted to understand if we should expect you to refinance that or given sort of your healthy cash flows, expect you to just have paid that down.

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [23]

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Sure. I think you're referencing the fact that when the FDA implemented their guidance, restricting the availability of flavored products, they were quite clear that for pod-based, closed-system products, that they were going to enforce against any product in the market other than tobacco and menthol, and they were not as clear with regard to some of the other product formats. But I think that they also were -- I think they were also quite specific that any product they found that was contributing to youth usage of e-vapor products, they were certainly going to enforce regardless of the product format. So I think if you see huge usage switch to other product formats other than pod-based products, I would expect the FDA to step in and enforce against those products as well.

I'll turn it over to Billy on your bond question.

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [24]

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Yes, you're exactly right. With the strong generation of the cash from our core businesses, we paid debt with available cash.

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Operator [25]

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Your next question comes from the line of Michael Lavery of Piper Sandler.

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Michael Scott Lavery, Piper Sandler & Co., Research Division - Director & Senior Research Analyst [26]

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On the JUUL equity income expectation now that, that would not have any contribution over the next 3 years -- 3 or 4 years, is that more related to the accounting treatment recording cash dividends? Or is that -- or does that reflect your expectations for what those earnings might look like?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [27]

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Yes, Michael, when you look at the fair value option, you have 2 components that come through. You only record, if you will, equity income related to dividends. And then you have, if you will, the change or adjustment to the fair value on a quarterly basis. And so since that equity line would include only dividends, we don't have any expectations that we would receive dividends over the next 3 years.

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Michael Scott Lavery, Piper Sandler & Co., Research Division - Director & Senior Research Analyst [28]

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That's a helpful clarification. And on the FTC review, obviously, you'd said you thought it would be resolved in the first quarter and now it's pushed out to the first half. Can you just give some color there? Is that delay any cause for concern?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [29]

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I don't think it is a cause for concern. There's a significant amount of activity going on and there were some scheduling delays that pushed it likely out of the first quarter. But I don't think it's driven by anything more than that.

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Michael Scott Lavery, Piper Sandler & Co., Research Division - Director & Senior Research Analyst [30]

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Okay, that's helpful. And then just lastly, on the buybacks, you did the $500 million in the fourth quarter and now are guiding to $500 million for the full year. Is there any reason why that pace would change? Or should we expect maybe a little bit of upside against that? How should we think about the outlook from here?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [31]

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Yes. I think, Michael, as far as share repurchase, I'm not going to speak to the pace, we really look at the market and make those decisions. All we -- we're in the current share repurchase program, and we'll assess what the pace is and whether we make any changes to that in the future.

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Operator [32]

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Your next question comes from the line of Adam Spielman of Citi.

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Adam Justin Spielman, Citigroup Inc, Research Division - MD and European Tobacco and Beverage Analyst [33]

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I have a couple of questions. Can I start with the Tobacco 21? In the states where you've seen that imposed for quite a while, can you say if there's been a difference in the volume run rate, I guess? That would be my first question on Tobacco 21.

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [34]

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Thanks for the question, Adam. I think when you look at the individual states, they differ in the way that the impact of that has happened. And so it's a bit early. I know you're referring to a couple of states that went much earlier, but it's tough to tease out. We will certainly be able to see that now with the nationwide -- on a federal level, the 21. So we'll be able to provide better input to that as we move forward.

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Adam Justin Spielman, Citigroup Inc, Research Division - MD and European Tobacco and Beverage Analyst [35]

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Also related -- so also related to that, I guess, the Tobacco 21 has 2 impacts. Firstly, you might have fewer people almost immediately because they just can't buy it. But also, you might think that the run rate of volume declines might get worse because, I guess, you're recruiting fewer smokers potentially in the future. And I was just wondering whether -- how you think about that second point, whether you think tobacco, not only does it have an impact this year in 2020 but also whether it alters the ongoing volume decline in the U.S.

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [36]

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Yes, I think as we think about the impact of Tobacco 21, I don't know that we divide it up the way you looked at it. Clearly, there are legal age to 20 tobacco users that were legal to purchase the product before that are no longer legal. And we hope that they fall out of the category and end up obeying the law. I think secondly, we actually don't advertise to non-tobacco users, but certainly, Tobacco 21 could cause people to delay their consideration of entering the tobacco category. And while that might have a future impact on category volumes, we don't do research on that.

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Adam Justin Spielman, Citigroup Inc, Research Division - MD and European Tobacco and Beverage Analyst [37]

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Okay. And then just if I can come back to the agreement of -- a change of the agreements in JUUL. And obviously, you're now going to provide them with less services than you had previously agreed to provide. And I was just wondering if JUUL has got anything in return for what looks like less value to them.

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [38]

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Well, I think as you looked at the agreement with JUUL, I think that ultimately, there were a number of changes to the agreement. I think we both felt like that was an agreement that provided value to both sides, and that's ultimately why we agreed to it.

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Adam Justin Spielman, Citigroup Inc, Research Division - MD and European Tobacco and Beverage Analyst [39]

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Fine. And just one final question. I noticed that the growth of the deep discount category, the sort of non-branded discount category, in terms of market share was slightly higher in 2019 than it was in previous years, so as I'm talking about incrementally. Do you -- why do you think that was? And do you think we should continue -- we will continue to see that in -- that increase switching to non-branded discount going forward?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [40]

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Yes, Adam, I think related to that, we had been talking about it being churn for most of the year. And I think that's primarily what occurred in the year. You're right, in 2019, it stepped slightly outside of just churn. I think as we see the aging of adult smokers, they tend to skew a bit more into the discount category. But I think there's always present in the consumer base a group of consumers that are looking for the, if you will, the cheaper or cheapest cigarette in the store. And as you've seen us and others take profitability on branded discount, you're seeing that consumer move-down to the, if you will, the [AUM] of the deep discount.

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Operator [41]

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Your next question comes from the line of Owen Bennett of Jefferies.

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Owen Michael Bennett, Jefferies LLC, Research Division - Equity Analyst [42]

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Just a question around the non-compete obligation and if the scenario did happen where you release from that. Just a few questions around that. Is it -- would it be right in assuming, therefore, that it'd be MarkTen that you'd try to get back on the market? And then also, are you in a good spot where you could get a PMTA in with MarkTen pretty quickly? And then finally, would you need to get a PMTA in first before you can get it onto the market? Or is MarkTen available, like for instance, in some little part of the U.S., which has not completely been rid of the shelves so you could run that up again pretty quickly?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [43]

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Sure. I wouldn't read too much into our renegotiation with JUUL that in the future potentially gives us more flexibility to compete. And I don't think that we have a well-defined plan if we were to decide to execute that. Certainly, we had some e-vapor products, although I would point out that they were not performing at a level that we found to be particularly satisfying. And certainly, any product that would be placed on the market would need to go through PMTA authorization, assuming that it was put on the market after May of 2020.

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Operator [44]

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Your next question comes from the line of Gaurav Jain of Barclays.

Okay. Your next question comes from the line of Steve Powers of Deutsche Bank.

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Stephen Robert R. Powers, Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division - Research Analyst [45]

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Yes. I guess, going back a little bit to the -- just the cigarette category and market share dynamics. I guess just an update, if we could, about your satisfaction with the Marlboro brand in terms of its standing versus -- and just overall brand equity. And clearly, we saw some share loss this year. We've discussed it in the past. But is there anything that you see there that causes you any concern relative to what you discussed in the past that may need corrective action?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [46]

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No, we're very pleased with the Marlboro brand. We think that PM USA team has done a fantastic job and really presented us with stability around the brand. They've had some excellent equity programs. I mentioned Marlboro Rewards earlier. I think that's really driving repeat purchases with those consumers that want to be engaged with Marlboro. Yes, we saw 0.1%. I wouldn't necessarily consider that a huge decline. I consider that stability. And if you look back, and we provided it over the call, with the last 7 to 8 quarters, you've seen very strong stability in the Marlboro brand itself.

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Stephen Robert R. Powers, Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division - Research Analyst [47]

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Okay, great. And then I guess, secondly, the decision to remove your long-term cigarette volume outlook. Does that simply reflect just a lack of visibility on your part? Or is the action more intended to maybe focus us on other metrics that you kind of see as more important as you work towards managing to optimize profit growth across the portfolio? I'm just trying to understand the -- I guess, the motivation and impetus behind removing that number from your communication?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [48]

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Sure. I think that we feel like it's -- we're probably in a better position to forecast the 1-year trend than we are for the 3-year trend. And I think that if we're going to provide forecasts, we like to do it with a reasonable level of confidence about falling within it. And we've just found that based on our past experience and based on the number of things that are impacting cigarette volumes going forward that we thought we were better off not continuing to provide that.

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Operator [49]

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Your next question comes from Robert Rampton of UBS.

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Robert Amos Rampton, UBS Investment Bank, Research Division - Associate Analyst [50]

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My first question is, so it looks like JUUL volumes were down 15% quarter-on-quarter. How much of that came from after JUUL pulled mint pods? I'm trying to think about the implications of the imminent cartridge ban for the rest of the market.

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [51]

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Sure. I don't -- I really can't break down how much of that volume decline for JUUL came after their November announcement of withdrawing mint and how much came before. But I think you are right that the primary driver of that volume decline was the impact of them removing mint from the market. And while that impacted JUUL in the fourth quarter, I think there's likely to be a volume step-down for the other companies that didn't proactively remove their flavored products and instead waited for FDA to force them to remove those products, and that, of course, will be an impact in the first quarter.

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Robert Amos Rampton, UBS Investment Bank, Research Division - Associate Analyst [52]

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Okay. And then -- so my next question is assuming e-cigarette sales decline year-on-year for 2020 in total. I mean, looking at your estimate of 2-point drag this year for 2018 -- '19, is the implication that, that 2-point drag disappears? Or am I interpreting that incorrectly?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [53]

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Well, I think that it's a little bit hard to measure precisely. We've given you our estimate of 4% to 6% volume decline for cigarettes. But I think that if you had an e-vapor category that declined, I think that the -- any stepped up decline in cigarettes related to e-vapor would probably go away. The question would then be, what are the potential impacts of either heat-not-burn or other movement to other categories? And then, of course, you'd have to factor in the impact of Tobacco 21.

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Robert Amos Rampton, UBS Investment Bank, Research Division - Associate Analyst [54]

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Okay. That's very helpful. And then, sorry, my final question on IQOS. Any color on how that's going on the spectrum of Germany to Japan? Are you happy to give any more color on where you think the U.S. will fall?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [55]

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Yes, it's still a bit early, and I know you're expecting us to say that. But I think what we're looking at is getting the learnings. We had learnings in Atlanta, and we've started some adjustments both in Atlanta and our subsequent launch in Richmond. We do have future plans, and we'll be sharing much more at CAGNY.

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Operator [56]

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We will now take questions from the media. Your first question comes from the line of Jennifer Maloney of Wall Street Journal.

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Jennifer Maloney, [57]

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Howard, my question is for you. You personally made the case for this big bet on JUUL. You made the case to shareholders, to your own board members. And I wonder what your feelings are now in this moment. Are you feeling frustrated that JUUL didn't act sooner to address regulators' concerns? Are you feeling regret for having invested in JUUL in the first place?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [58]

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I have to tell you I'm highly disappointed in the financial performance of the JUUL investment. And I think that, that is reflected in the most recent valuation, which is substantially below what we had expected. I think as you look at the drivers of that, there were a number of unexpected outcomes in the year. Probably the one that I think was hardest to have forecast was the appearance of the serious lung injury. Essentially, you had the CDC recommending to all e-vapor consumers, both THC and nicotine consumers, that they stop vaping. It took quite a bit of time to get clarification that the serious lung injury was primarily driven by THC black market products. So I think it's a disappointing performance.

I would, however, note that JUUL was the market share leader and the volume growth leader in 2019. And I think while there's going to be a reset in the category, that I think is an appropriate reset to drive down youth usage, I do think that they are well positioned following the reset to have more success in the future.

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Jennifer Maloney, [59]

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And one more, if I may. This new revised agreement gives you an out on the noncompete, and it acknowledges that JUUL might be taken off the market by federal law. So do you see that as a higher possibility now than you did before?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [60]

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I don't think that our change in the agreement to have additional optionality if certain things happen in the future were necessarily driven by a change in our view of what might happen to JUUL. But clearly, we decided that there's always a chance that something like that could happen. And we thought having the option to elect, under those circumstances, to be able to go back into the market and compete, we thought that had value. But I have to tell you, right now, our primary focus is on helping JUUL file a compelling and complete PMTA with the FDA by the May 2020 deadline.

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Operator [61]

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Your next question comes from the line of Tiffany Kary of Bloomberg.

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Tiffany Kary, [62]

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Howard, question for you. How are you calculating the litigation risk from JUUL? And are there steps you can take to isolate yourself given the way the deal was structured in terms of indemnification agreements or agreement not to indemnify?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [63]

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Sure, why don't I let Billy take that?

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William F. Gifford, Altria Group, Inc. - CFO [64]

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Yes. So if you look at the way we assessed it is, it was really a change in the discount rate for the fourth quarter impairment. We really looked at assessing -- we did not assess the merits of the cases, whether they would be successful or not against JUUL. We really looked at assessing the risk of the uncertainty related to litigation. You'll recall, if you go back even in our tobacco history when we were facing the AG suits and similar suits, the market itself put a higher level of discount on our share price compared to the S&P. Subsequent to that, that has gone from our share price. But that's what was reflected in the fourth quarter impairment.

As far as the structure of the agreement, I would remind you, we do assess the merits of the cases that we're named in. And we think they're meritless, and we will be filing for a motion to dismiss.

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Tiffany Kary, [65]

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And one more thing, if I may. PMI has just made another deal with a Korean company. You're already moving on to IQOS 3. Would you ever sell in the U.S. other sorts of products that your sister company, Philip Morris, is selling overseas?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [66]

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We're always open-minded, but I won't comment on that at this time.

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Operator [67]

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Your next question comes from the line of Gaurav Jain of Barclays.

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Gaurav Jain, Barclays Bank PLC, Research Division - Research Analyst [68]

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Apologies for the drop. So I had a couple of questions. Number one was just on the cadence of volume through the year. So Q4 '19 industry volumes were minus 4.5% when Q4 '18 comp was minus 5%. And Q1 '19 to Q2 '19 comps are very easy when industry volumes were down 7%. So should we expect that volumes will be much better in the first half and Tobacco 21 impacts in the second half and that's how volumes progress through the year?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [69]

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Yes. I don't know that it's possible to predict each quarter's cigarette volume decline with that level of precision. I think we've provided you with kind of our perspective on what the puts and takes might be. But I would hesitate to forecast on a quarter-over-quarter basis.

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Gaurav Jain, Barclays Bank PLC, Research Division - Research Analyst [70]

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Sure. My second question is on on!, that you mentioned you will be filing a PMTA. But would you also be thinking of filing an MRTP? And could you also remind us where you are with the Copenhagen MRTP as well?

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [71]

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Sure. Right now, our first priority is to file the PMTA by the May deadline. But you are right to point out that, that is a product that I think has potential to receive an MRTP. And I think we'll turn to that task after we get the May filing competed -- completed. And you are also right that it's been about a year since the TPSAC hearing on Copenhagen. We thought that we had a good hearing with regard to Copenhagen as a potentially reduced risk product, and we would expect to hear on Copenhagen anytime now.

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Operator [72]

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I'll now turn the floor back over to management for any closing comments.

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Howard A. Willard, Altria Group, Inc. - Chairman & CEO [73]

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Thank you. In summary, while the JUUL investment and e-vapor category remained challenging, our core tobacco businesses are strong and resilient, delivering significant cash and providing us with the flexibility to invest in our noncombustible business platform. We continue to believe that Altria's enhanced business platform best positions us to succeed under various future category scenarios.

Lastly and most importantly, I want to thank our employees for their accomplishments and relentless dedication over the past year. Because of them, I have even greater confidence in our ability to succeed into the future.

Thanks again for joining us, and please contact our Investor Relations team if you have further questions.

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Operator [74]

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Thank you. That does conclude today's conference call. You may now disconnect.