BAT Gets Leg Up on Marlboro in U.S. Heated-Tobacco Race

(Bloomberg) -- British American Tobacco Plc’s shares broke out of their recent malaise as investors welcomed solid profits and the prospect of the company’s heated-tobacco product being the first on the U.S. market.

BAT’s first-half profit of 4.82 billion pounds ($6.4 billion) was slightly ahead of analysts’ estimates. The London-based company said it received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin selling its Neocore heated-tobacco device, which was formerly known as Eclipse.

The shares were the best performers on the benchmark FTSE 100 index, rising as much as 5.5 percent to a three-month high.

“There’s plenty of good news in there,” Liberum analyst Nico von Stackelberg said by phone. “Expectations have been so low for so long that a beat on profit is certainly welcome.”

BAT Gets Leg Up on Marlboro in U.S. Heated-Tobacco Race

BAT’s profits are a rare bit of cheer for tobacco investors. A slowdown in the growth of heated-tobacco devices in Japan and the rapid growth of U.S. e-cigarette startup Juul Labs Inc. has made big tobacco look increasingly vulnerable to the decline in the conventional cigarette. The London-based tobacco company’s shares have fallen 17 percent this year.

First Mover

BAT inherited Neocore from Reynolds when it acquired the business last year. Eclipse had already received FDA approval, which enabled BAT to fast-track its application this time around. Neocore is a carbon-tipped product that is lit with a match yet doesn’t burn the tobacco. The company will carry out consumer tests of the product during the next 12 months, according to Jerry Abelman, BAT’s head of external affairs.

The approval will help build investor conviction in the company’s potential in cigarette alternatives and should mean its heated-tobacco device is on the market before Philip Morris International Inc.’s iQos, Jefferies analyst Owen Bennett said by email.

Philip Morris, which has been selling Marlboro tobacco sticks for iQos devices in more than 30 countries, is also developing a carbon-tipped product called Teeps. However, it hasn’t officially launched it in any markets besides a consumer trial in the Dominican Republic.

Outside of the U.S., BAT’s progress with cigarette alternatives has faltered. The growth of heated-tobacco devices in Japan has recently slowed, leading the company to concede it may not be able to achieve its forecast of breaking even in its cigarette alternatives business this year.

BAT expects revenue from its cigarette alternatives to exceed 1 billion pounds this year. A month ago it expected revenue “substantially” above that level.

“The growth in Japan has definitely flattened and the heated-tobacco category needs reinvigorating,” BAT’s Abelman said by phone. “Breaking even isn’t the focus right now.”

In a bid to spur faster growth in Japan, BAT will release a smaller version of Glo in the second half. The company is also aiming to convert more smokers by offering heated-tobacco sticks with more nicotine.

The slowdown in Japan has been compounded by the success of Juul, an e-cigarette that has captured the majority of the U.S. market in just three years and launched in the U.K. this month. BAT plans to start selling the Vuse Alto, a similar device that uses nicotine salts to give vapers a bigger hit, across the U.S. in August, to be followed by another product near the end of the year.

BAT Gets Leg Up on Marlboro in U.S. Heated-Tobacco Race

The decline in U.S. cigarette volumes in the first few months of the year led investors to speculate that Juul was the cause. Abelman rejected that hypothesis, saying the decline was driven primarily by rising gas prices and a tax increase in California.

BAT shares were up 5.2 percent to 4,179.50 pence at 10:14 a.m. in London.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.