Altria said cigarette industry shipments flattened in 2020

Marlboro cigarettes, a product of Philip Morris International

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

After years of accelerating declines in smoking, tobacco giant Altria said it saw a reversal in the trend as U.S. cigarette volumes were flat industry wide compared with the prior year.

However, the company declined to provide a prediction about how things would shape up in 2021 because it’s unclear if the factors that contributed to this trend would continue.

The pandemic brought more people holed up inside their homes, giving more opportunities to smokers to take a break from their hectic days and light up more often, especially amid overall higher stress and anxiety levels due to the economy and the health crisis. Employees working from home were no longer in a smoke-free office and consumers generally had more disposable income from restrictions on other forms of entertainment such as restaurants and bars, movie theaters and travel.

In Altria’s own business, the trend was more pronounced. Total cigarette shipment volume for the Marlboro maker was down 0.4% from 2019, and up 3.1% in the fourth-quarter. By comparison, Altria’s cigarette volume from 2018 to 2019, fell 7.3%.

Altria said it is paying close attention to trends that may influence future cigarette sales.

“Looking ahead, we expect 2021 cigarette industry volume trends to be most influenced by smoker’s stay-at-home practices, unemployment rates, fiscal stimulus, cross category movement, the timing and breadth of COVID-19 vaccine deployment and consumer purchasing behavior following the vaccine,” Altria said in an earnings conference call.

In the face of expected declines in smoking, Altria has been investing in alternatives to cigarettes such as its heated tobacco product iQos and nicotine pouches.

Altria shares closed Thursday up 1.98% at $42.65. The stock has fallen nearly 15% over the past year, giving it a market value of $79.26 billion.

In the fourth quarter, the company reported net income of $1.92 billion, or $1.03 per share, compared with a loss of $1.81 billion a year ago. Excluding items, Altria earned 99 cents per share, which was below analysts’ estimates. Revenue was better than expected, rising to $6.3 billion from $6 billion a year ago.

For 2021, the company expectes it will earn $4.49 to $4.62 per share after adjustments.

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