By MICHAEL FELBERBAUM
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) â¿¿ The Marlboro Man may soon be hitching his wagon to a new kind of cigarette.
Altria Group Inc., owner of the nation's biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, announced Thursday that its NuMark subsidiary plans to introduce an electronic cigarette during the second half of the year, making it the last of the major domestic tobacco companies to enter the growing category.
While it's a small market compared with traditional tobacco products, "there's no denying that adult tobacco consumers have shown some interest in it," Altria CEO Marty Barrington said in a conference call with investors. Details on the product, the market it will enter and whether it will be under the top-selling Marlboro brand name were not revealed.
The move is the latest in an industrywide push to diversify beyond the traditional cigarette business, which has become tougher in the face of tax hikes, smoking bans, health concerns and social stigma.
Reynolds American Inc., owner of the second-biggest U.S. cigarette maker, has begun limited distribution of its first electronic cigarette under the Vuse brand and Lorillard Inc., the nation's third-biggest tobacco company, acquired e-cigarette maker Blu Ecigs in April 2012.
Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a disposable cartridge, creating vapor that users inhale. Some e-cigarettes are made to look like a real cigarette with a tiny light on the tip that glows like the real thing.
Devotees tout them as a way to break addiction to real cigarettes. They insist the devices address both the nicotine addiction and the behavioral aspects of smoking without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration plans to assert regulatory authority over e-cigarettes in the near future. Public health officials say the safety of e-cigarettes and their effectiveness in helping people quit regular smokes haven't been fully studied.