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Philips, Sharp, 3M Help Investors Breathe Easy in Smoggy China

BEIJING (TheStreet) -- The common man in China used to root for economic growth and shrug off polluted air as a necessary price to pay for future prosperity.

Today, now that China has achieved relative prosperity, the common man is spending a lot of money on home air purifiers, purifier replacement filters and face masks.

The combination of urban air pollution and consumer wealth has been a boon to companies that cater to rising demand for a little lung protection in China. Getting behind these companies are stock investors who understand the common man's angst and don't expect China's chronic smog to blow away anytime soon.

The Beijing-based consultancy China Market Monitor predicts air purifier sales to hit $1.4 billion this year in China and jump another 30% in 2015. Highlighting the potential for growth is the fact that only about 0.1% of Chinese homes today have an air purifier, compared with 71% of the homes in South Korea.

Step one for investing in these smog-fighting product makers is to remember that Chinese consumers often prefer foreign brands. Moreover, the middle class and wealthy don't mind paying extra for trustworthy products if their health is at stake.

According to China Market Monitor, foreign companies have cornered 54% of the air purifier market in China. And the market's fastest-growing segment is at the high end of the price range, which means $800 and up. Well-to-do consumers sometimes have a purifier in every room in the house.

The nation's most popular home air purifiers are made by the Dutch company Koninklijke Philips (PHG - Get Report)   and the Japanese companies Panasonic (PCRFY) and Sharp (SHCAY) , according to the Chinese appliance industry consultant AVC. The Chinese brands Yadu and Daikin are ranked fourth and fifth.

Purifier shoppers in China also like appliances made by Sweden's Electrolux (ELUXY) , South Korea's Samsung (SSNLF) and America's 3M (MMM - Get Report) .

These companies also make money by selling purifier replacement filters, which in some machines have to be changed at intervals that vary according to local pollution conditions. In smoggy Beijing, for example, filters for basic machines that cost about $50 each should be changed every three to six months. Filter spending is obviously higher in cities such as Shijiazhuang, where pollution levels can be three times worse than Beijing's.

In addition to capitalizing on demand for breathable air indoors, 3M makes money in China by selling protective face masks. Chinese consumers still favor cheap surgical and cloth masks for smoggy days. But many have learned that more is needed to protect one's lungs from the most dangerous particulates in city air. The masks 3M makes for industrial applications are commonly worn in China by pedestrians, including children walking to school.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

Follow @ej_street

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

TheStreet Ratings team rates 3M CO as a Buy with a ratings score of A+. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:

"We rate 3M CO (MMM) a BUY. This is based on the convergence of positive investment measures, which should help this stock outperform the majority of stocks that we rate. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its revenue growth, largely solid financial position with reasonable debt levels by most measures, notable return on equity, expanding profit margins and solid stock price performance. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company shows weak operating cash flow."

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