Top tobacco companies face more pressure

Published July 11, 2003 8:54PM (EDT)

Top four U.S. tobacco companies likely will see more price pressures, market share erosion and credit rating downgrades as their discount counterparts become more pervasive, Moody's Investors Service said in a report released Friday.

"The creation of a 'deep discount' pricing segment means that 'Big Four' pricing flexibility -- once the biggest economic strength of the industry -- has disappeared in the U.S.," Christophe Razaire, a Moody's vice president and senior credit officer, wrote in the report.

He added, "The larger participants to the industry could have to permanently lower their net sales prices to the consumer in order to maintain market share. This could have a very detrimental effect on their profitability."

The Big Four are Altria Group Inc., owner of Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc., Loews Corp., and British American Tobacco PLC. Moody's said all have negative credit outlooks except for RJ Reynolds, which is on review for a downgrade.

Low-price cigarette manufacturers saw their share of the U.S. market surpass 10 percent in the first quarter of 2003, Razaire said, having had only approximately 2.5 percent market share in 1997.

Shares of Altria, whose brands include top-selling Marlboro cigarettes as well as Virginia Slims, Benson & Hedges and Basic, fell $1.39 to $41.81 on the New York Stock Exchange.

RJ Reynolds, maker of Camel, Salem and Winston brands, fell 50 cents to $36.32 on the NYSE.

British American Tobacco's shares rose 11 cents to $21.63 on the American Stock Exchange; BAT is the third biggest U.S. cigarette company with brands such as Lucky Strike and Pall Mall.

Shares of Loews Corp., whose brands include Kent and Newport, gained 35 cents to close at $47.76 on the NYSE.

By Anne D'innocenzio

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