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Looks Like the Wrong Time to Quit Smoking

Andrea Felsted
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Looks Like the Wrong Time to Quit Smoking

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Lloyd Bridges’s character in the disaster comedy “Airplane” captured it quite well when he said, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.” It’s a sentiment shared by people locked down around the world. While demand for most everything outside of food and toilet paper has declined, cigarettes are holding up.

In an environment where companies are ditching their profit guidance left, right and center, Imperial Brands Plc, which makes Kool and Gauloises cigarettes, said on Tuesday that so far the virus had had no material impact on performance and trading remained in line with expectations. That echoes comments two weeks ago from British American Tobacco Plc. Shares in Imperial rose as much as 15%

In the coronavirus-induced consumer crisis, big tobacco is certainly living up to its defensive reputation.

After all, if people are addicted to nicotine, they still need their fix. And the pandemic-stricken world we live in provides incentives to light up more often:  Anxiety induced by ever-grimmer headlines; the fact that local stores selling cigarettes are still open; and the ease with which you can take a fag break when working from home as opposed to having to step outside the office.

But it’s not unqualified good news for the industry.

Imperial, which also makes Golden Virginia tobacco,  said that its factories were building contingency stocks, and its Logista distribution business serving Italy, France and Spain was doing the same to ensure supplies could get through to retailers. It’s also possible that as with rice and pasta, consumers are stockpiling cigarettes in case of even more stringent isolation measures down the road. So some demand may have been pulled forward, meaning this uptick might not be sustained in the long term.

What’s more concerning is a recent focus on the increased risk of Covid-19 to smokers, and whether that may encourage more people to quit once the crisis has passed. Reports that the state of New York was in discussions about potentially banning cigarettes made headlines, but Bloomberg News reported on Monday that consideration of a ban was “100% not true.”

Still, a renewed focus on personal health, especially where everyone’s lungs are concerned, would likely hurt cigarette sales in the future. These are all challenges tobacco companies will have to grapple with as they race to find what alternative product will drive growth if or when the world does kick its cigarette habit. The industry was already working to get past questions about health risks around vaping, which was last year linked with a spate of cases of respiratory illness. Groups including BAT, Altria Group Inc. and Philip Morris International Inc. have invested billions of dollars in electronic cigarettes and devices that heat rather than burn tobacco. Altria took a 35% stake in vaping leader Juul Labs Inc., which it has now written down. 

Right now, though, with the prospect of economic conditions deteriorating, tobacco’s resilience in the face of recession should come to the fore, especially given that traditional cigarettes remain the industry’s most profitable product. Smokers may trade down if money becomes tight, or switch to rolling their own cigarettes. But Duncan Fox, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, says that even then pure tobacco has higher margins.

So from a position a few months ago, where vaping sales were under pressure, but there were worries about an accelerated decline in smoking traditional cigarettes too, Big Tobacco’s core business now looks to be on a surer footing. That’s bad for public health, and for those funds that choose not to invest in cigarettes. But at least it can help preserve the industry’s profits and chunky dividend payouts for investors, when those at many other companies are suffering.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

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