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What’s Big Tobacco Saying About E-Cigs?

Below we’ve collected Big Tobacco’s Q2 earnings call commentary on electronic cigarettes. A common thread among the big four (LO, RAI, MO, PM) is excitement to participate in the category, focused investment behind it, but cautious optimism on the runway for e-cigs as a category and general uncertainty on just how the FDA will regulate e-cigs in the future.

LO led the group in terms of bullish sentiment on claims of strong incidence of repeat trialing (conversion) of e-cigs, whereas the others suggested conversion rates still remain low or that it’s too early to measure results. 

Big Tobacco’s push into e-cigs began last year, and of the big four, LO was the first out of the gate purchasing Blu last April. As we show in the table below, both RAI and MO are launching their e-cig versions this month and next month, while PM commented that it may have ambitions to get in the market in 2016/17. 

What’s Big Tobacco Saying About E-Cigs? - vv. ecigs

Lorillard’s e-cig Blu holds the number one dollar share of the total e-cig market at ~40% followed by NJOY (private) at ~30%. Across the xAOC channel (= all channels excluding convenience), the leading brands include: Blu (44.5%), FIN (20.6% share), Mistic (11.7% share), and NJOY (10.8% share).

U.S. e-cigs sales were projected at $150MM in 2011, $500MM in 2012 ($300MM across retail channels and $200MM over the internet), and are estimated to be around $1-2B in 2013. Currently e-cigs represent 1% or less of the portfolio of any Big Tobacco company, however we think there is a huge runway for converters in the $90B annual tobacco industry and believe e-cigs may be the first truly new consumer product in the markets in many years. They offer a compelling alternative to traditional cigarettes and offer the consumer a much different experience than a nicotine patch or gum.

The involvement of Big Tobacco in the category should continue to lend credibility to e-cigs and accelerate growth; we expect e-cigs to be margin-enhancing to the combined cigarette category for Big Tobacco and 2014 to be a breakout year for them, having tested the waters in 2013.

LO:


E-cigs were a hot topic on the call. LO reported that Blu achieved net sales of $57MM in the quarter with over a 40% retail market share. In the quarter it added its e-cigs to 30K retailers to bring its total to 110K retailers.

LO said Blu’s topline grew year-over-year, but was flat sequentially due to the rollout of its new rechargeable kit. LO only sold rechargeable Blu units in 2 of the 3 months out of the quarter as it took one month to draw-down inventory of its old model before the June 24th launch of its new model to replace the older version.

LO, unlike RAI or PM, was very bullish in its commentary on repeat purchases of its e-cig, and confident that although the new rechargeable kit is sold at break-even for the company, the razor-razor blade model of the kit-cartridge will prove profitable.  As of Q1 2013 (no update on the call), disposables accounted for 51% of its e-cig sales. We believe the company will be pushing to expand its more profitable rechargeable business at the expense of less profitable disposables, and we think the new rechargeable is a catalyst for this shift, and should be margin enhancing as distribution and investment behind the brand expand.

Feedback according to CEO Murray Kessler on e-cigs from retailers is very positive given the opportunity for higher margins versus other tobacco offerings.  On who is switching to e-cigs, Kessler offered up it’s typically users of less tar cigarettes. He added, this is another reason why he expects less cannibalization with its full-flavored menthols or even its new Newport non-menthol Golds.  

RAI:


The company looks to continue to invest in its e-cig brand Vuse in the back half. It opened its earnings call by underling that it’s excited that Vuse is expanding into its first major market, Colorado. In the Q&A, the company noted that Vuse will grow to have a commanding presence in the e-cig market, already out in 500 retail stores in the first week, with a flavor profile it calls superior to its competitors.

On industry trends, it claims it’s too early to talk about the consumer response, but said retailers are extremely positive. It noted that while e-cigs have strong trialing, so far the conversion rate is low. RAI also said that while its products may have product displays at retail locations that are available to the customer, the actual product is located behind the counter and access is clerk-assisted.

 


MO:


Responding to questions if E-cig have any impact on cigarette volumes this quarter, management gave no color beyond that e-cigs are having some impact. It noted that they’re thinking about what the size is now and what it can be down the road and there is a lot that has yet to be resolved: what the regulatory structure could be, and depending on that, the impact on the size of the category. Further they’re not sure about what excise taxes may be.

On playing catch-up to LO with its MarkTen, the CEO said we're still in the early days in the e-vapor category, and he’s confident that MarkTen will be a strong player in the category.  He added that MO’s strategy remains to maximize the core business while taking appropriate steps forward with innovation. He said, in e-vapor category we want to learn our way in.

On marketing plans for MarkTen the CEO noted that because the products contain nicotine, they’ll put appropriate warnings on the product, which it will bear despite the fact that it is not currently regulated by the FDA. It’s target audience is adult smokers and vaporers, and noted that the company will take the appropriate steps so that the product doesn’t reach an unintended audience.

PM:


In the Q&A there were a couple questions on E-cigs. CFO Olczak kept his words brief but said that the market is difficult to estimate, and he doesn’t think it is more than 1% of the industry, which itself might be a high estimate. He believes demand and interest overall is much stronger in the U.S. than in Europe and that what’s distinguishing the category is its lower price points versus traditional cigs, and that the taste profiles don’t compare. He cannot size up if the category will be one with staying power, or one that is a fad. Finally, he hinted that PM could get involved in the market in 2016/17.

Matthew Hedrick
Senior Analyst