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Juul Ban Could Allow Altria To Explore E-cigarette Options, Analysts Say

Juul's US e-cigarette ban could pave the way for Altria, one of its largest investors, to pursue other vaping product makers or go it alone, Wall Street analysts said on Friday.

Despite regulators highlighting the risks of vaping, analysts say e-cigarettes are key to the nicotine industry's future, with JP Morgan analysts expecting the $11-billion US retail market to double in size by 2030.

Altria, like other tobacco majors, has therefore been investing in smokeless options, including snus and snuff, amid a broader crackdown on the use of cigarettes due to health risks.

Elsewhere, a US federal appeals court on Friday (24 June) put on hold the Food and Drug Administration's ban on sales of Juul Labs Inc's e-cigarettes, after the company appealed the health agency's order and said the ban would cause it 'irreparable harm'.

'Extraordinary And Unlawful'

Juul said the FDA's decision to block sales of its products was 'extraordinary and unlawful', citing, among other things, the agency authorizing similar e-cigarette products made by competing manufacturers.

Under a 2018 deal which gave Altria a 35% stake in Juul, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes in the United States cannot invest or engage in the e-vapour business other than through Juul, which has faced more scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers over the appeal of its nicotine products to teenagers.

However, analysts said Altria's obligations are voided if the value of its stake in Juul falls by more than 90% from the time at which it bought into the once high-flying firm.

The valuation of privately owned Juul has since plummeted, with its value on Altria's balance sheet shrinking 87% to $1.6 billion as of 31 March from $12.8 billion that it paid in 2018.

Altria's shares have lost about 7%, or nearly $6 billion, in market value since Wednesday of last week, after reports that the US Food and Drug Administration was preparing to ban Juul's products.

'Lacked Sufficient Evidence'

The regulator on Thursday said Juul's applications 'lacked sufficient evidence' to show that sale of the products would be appropriate for public health.

"With the elimination of the non-compete, Altria could pursue M&A in e-vapour, or organic product development," Cowen analyst Vivien Azer said.

Bernstein analyst Callum Elliott said in a note that Altria could try to buy privately owned Njoy, which has already succeeded with its PMTA (Premarket Tobacco Product Application) process applications.

Before Njoy, British American Tobacco's Vuse Solo e-cigarettes and tobacco-flavoured pods had become the first-ever vapour products to receive clearance from the health regulator in October last year.

"(The FDA) decision points toward the need for Altria to accelerate its investments in alternative nicotine-delivery systems sooner rather than later," Edward Jones analyst John Boylan said.

Read More: Juul Halts Indonesia E-Cig Sales, Throwing Asia Expansion In Doubt

News by Reuters, edited by Checkout. For more A-brand stories, click here. Click subscribe to sign up for the Checkout print edition.

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