Altria Dips After Report SEC Investigating Probe of Juul Stake

(Bloomberg) -- Altria Group Inc. shares dipped Friday after a report in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had opened a probe into the cigarette maker’s $12.8 billion investment into vaping company Juul Labs Inc.

Shares of Altria closed Friday at $45.89 in New York, up 0.7% after gaining as much as 1.4% earlier in the day. The Journal said the SEC is probing whether Altria adequately disclosed the risks of the investment. The tobacco company has written its position down to $4.2 billion amid new restrictions on Juul’s business and scrutiny over whether the vaping company hooked a new generation of young users on nicotine.

Judy Burns, an SEC spokeswoman, declined to comment. Representatives for Juul and and Altria declined to comment.

Altria invested in Juul in late 2018, valuing the vaping startup at about $38 billion at the time. In announcing the most recent writedown, Altria said it had narrowed the terms of its cooperation with Juul, saying it would no longer give it marketing help and would instead focus solely on assisting Juul through its growing regulatory challenges.

Juul can only keep selling its products in the U.S. if it submits an application to the Food and Drug Administration by May 12 -- and if the agency eventually approves it.

Altria has been “highly disappointed” in its Juul investment, CEO Howard Willard said in January. When the tobacco giant first made its investment, “Juul was the market share leader and market growth leader” in vaping, he said.

K.C. Crosthwaite, a former Altria executive who is now Juul’s CEO, has said that he is focused on building the e-cigarette maker for the long-term by preparing premarket tobacco product applications to earn authorization in the U.S. Juul’s latest internal valuation has put the company’s value at about $20 billion, according to an internal memo sent to staff and described to Bloomberg News.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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