The company behind Marlboro just made a huge bet on Juul, and the move makes the Silicon Valley e-cig startup more valuable than Airbnb

  • Tobacco giant Altria is paying $US12.8 billion for a 35% stake in Silicon Valley e-cig startup Juul Labs, the companies said on Thursday.
  • As early as this spring, Wall Street analysts warned that Juul sales were starting to encroach on big tobacco’s financial terrain and could negatively affect Altria stocks.
  • Altria’s move is strategic: It gives the company a fresh lineup of nicotine products as traditional cigarette smoking declines in popularity.
  • But US regulators have been cracking down on smoking and e-cigs as they seek to curb nicotine use.

In a memo circulated in April, Citigroup analysts warned investors that skyrocketing sales of a new e-cig called the Juul could negatively affect tobacco stocks, including those of Altria and British American Tobacco.

But Altria just announced a strategic move that could allow it to benefit from vaping’s meteoric rise. On Thursday, the tobacco giant behind Marlboro cigarettes struck a deal with Juul Labs, the Silicon Valley startup behind the Juul, to take a big stake in the company.

Altria is investing $US12.8 billion in Juul and will own 35% of the vape maker. The move makes Juul worth $US38 billion, more than Silicon Valley startups such as Airbnb, Pinterest, and Lyft. The company had been previously valued at roughly $US16 billion earlier this year.

Altria said Juul would become its only e-cigarette offering and that the company would promote the devices alongside its combustible cigarettes and other nicotine-containing products.

“We are taking significant action to prepare for a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose non-combustible products over cigarettes,” Altria CEO Howard Willard said in a statement.


Read more:
There’s a new vape pen taking over America – and it has Wall Street worried about tobacco stocks

While about 34 million adults still smoke cigarettes in the US, the number has been in decline for years. Vaping is far less popular but still gaining fast, with 6.9 million adults using e-cigs.

Altria’s stock declined 16% in November after the US Food and Drug Administration moved to ban menthol cigarettes, saying they’re a common on-ramp for new smokers because they mask the harshness of cigarettes. The FDA also imposed new rules on vaping designed to stop kids from getting hooked.

The menthol ban and smoking decline are sending Altria in search of new products to sell its customers. Altria said the deal would help it reach more adult smokers interested in alternatives to combustible cigarettes, though it plans to continue to “compete vigorously in all other tobacco product markets.”


Read more:
Regulators will ban menthol cigarettes and chip away at flavored e-cigs to combat teen vaping – but experts say their plans fall short

Vaping has taken off in recent years, in part on the hope that the devices – which deliver nicotine and flavours to a user’s lungs – could help smokers switch or at least offer a healthier alternative to combustible cigarettes. But data released by the US government earlier in November showed a big uptick in teenage e-cig use, leading to the FDA crackdown.

And while there’s some limited data to suggest that vaping can help adult smokers switch, e-cig use comes with risks of its own.

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