Editor's Note: This column was originally published May 2 as part of The Save Safe Plan , a premium subscription service. We hope you enjoy this special bonus. To subscribe, please click here for more information.

The stocks of the big three tobacco companies offer remarkably compelling yields. But those yields have spiked for the simple reason that tobacco stocks are as risky to your portfolio as tobacco is to your health. More than ever, the rough economy and stricter smoking laws are crimping cigarette demand and pushing customers toward cheaper brands.

I've questioned the durability of these tobacco dividends before, and I still can't countenance the risk inherent in these dividends, even as these companies remain committed to maintaining their payouts. Active investors may be able to benefit in the near term, but in general I believe long-term investors should stay away because of the legal and earnings risks facing these companies.

I've decided to focus on the following three stocks because they represent the largest pure-play tobacco stocks, controlling about three-quarters of the cigarette and chewing tobacco markets.

R.J. Reynolds ( RJR) slashed its 2003 profit forecast by more than half on April 25, citing price competition from discount brands. The maker of Camel and Doral cigarettes now expects to earn just over $3 a share this year, which compares unfavorably to its proposed dividend payout of $3.80.

Like its peers UST ( UST) and Altria ( MO), R.J. Reynolds looks inexpensive on just about every valuation metric. At Friday's close of $28.39, the yield of 13.4% is approaching an all-time high, and the balance sheet boasts $22.40 per share in cash.

On the other hand, cash and debt have been moving in the wrong direction. At the end of the most recent quarter, the $2.4 billion company said it had more than $3 billion in total debt (more than 40% of which will come due in the next two years). This will sap more than 60% of R.J. Reynolds' cash on hand, giving management less leeway to supplement operating earnings to finance the dividend.

If you liked this article you might like

Stocks Under $10 Portfolio: An Energy Play, a Rate Hike and Rebounding Markets

Stocks Under $10 Portfolio: Earnings and Yellen in the Spotlight

Stocks Under $10 Portfolio: Consumer Staples Overbought

These 2 'Dogs of the Dow' Will Have Their Day in 2017