Altria to buy stake in Juul Labs

Altria, under pressure from FDA, said in talks to buy stake in Juul Labs

 

Altria to buy stake in Juul Labs, Stockwinners
Altria to buy stake in Juul Labs, Stockwinners

Following a report that Altria Group (MO) is in talks to take a “significant” stake in Juul Labs, an analyst said that an agreement could make strategic sense for the tobacco giant to gain exposure to a fast-growing product that poses a threat to its cigarette business.

The Wall Street Journal said Altria is in talks to take a “significant” minority interest in Juul Labs, a controversial e-cigarette startup.

According to people familiar with the matter, any deal is likely several weeks away. Juul was last valued at $16B in a private fundraising round this summer.

Altria has an agreement with Philip Morris (PM) to market IQOS, subject to regulatory approval. Philip Morris is already selling it in 43 countries and has said it could get approved for the U.S. by the end of the year.

Juul has drawn criticism over its products’ popularity with teens.

Juul, whose products are sold online and in convenience stores, gas stations and vape shops, accounted for about three-quarters of the U.S. e-cigarette market in the four-week period ended November 17, according to the Wells Fargo analysis of Nielsen data.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to place restrictions on sales of flavored e-cigarettes.

Juul also said it would restrict sales of nearly all its flavored pods to the internet, and stop most social media promotion to combat youth vaping.

“More than 99% of all social media content related to JUUL Labs is generated through third-party users and accounts with no affiliation to our company. Nevertheless, we understand that many young people get their information from social media. To remove ourselves entirely from participation in the social conversation, we have decided to shut down our U.S.-based social media accounts on Facebook (FB) and Instagram. We have never used Snapchat (SNAP),” the company stated.

WHAT’S NOTABLE

Following the FDA statement on the agency’s proposed steps against underage smoking, Altria General Counsel Murray Garnick said it “welcomed” the FDA’s efforts to address the underage use of e-vapor products and said it believes Congress should raise the legal age of purchase for all tobacco products to 21.

Last month, Altria said it would pull its pod-based e-vapor products from the market until approved by FDA.

The company said Nu Mark will remove MarkTen Elite and Apex by MarkTen pod-based products from the market “until these products receive a market order from the FDA or the youth issue is otherwise addressed,” and that for the remaining MarkTen and Green Smoke cig-a-like products, Nu Mark will sell only tobacco, menthol and mint varieties.

Nu Mark will discontinue the sale of all other flavor variants of our cig-a-like products until these products receive a market order from the FDA.

The FDA is also pursuing a ban on menthol cigarettes, which could remove nearly a third of the roughly 250B cigarettes sold annually in the U.S., The Wall Street Journal said.

A rule could take a year or more to finalize, the FDA said. The FDA concluded in 2013 that menthols are harder to quit and likely pose a greater health risk than regular cigarettes.

ANALYST COMMENTARY

Morgan Stanley analyst Pamela Kaufman said she has no knowledge of a potential deal between Altria and Juul but that taking such a stake could make strategic sense for Altria to gain exposure to a fast growing product that poses a threat to its cigarette business.

Altria does not have a robust reduced risk product portfolio and Juul’s e-cigs could significantly enhance its competitive position, stated Kaufman, who also believes Altria would likely be buying in at a lower valuation than the previously reported $15B given the FDA recently prohibited flavored pods sales in convenience stores.

 OTHERS TO WATCH

Publicly traded companies in the tobacco products space also include Philip Morris and British American Tobacco (BTI).


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