Marlboro Maker Altria 4Q Profit Up 32 Percent

By MICHAEL FELBERBAUM

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) â¿¿ Marlboro maker Altria Group's fourth-quarter profit rose about 32 percent as it commanded higher prices for cigarettes and smokeless tobacco and expanded its industry-leading share of the U.S. market.

The owner of the nation's biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, on Thursday reported net income of $1.1 billion, or 55 cents per share, for the three-month period ended Dec. 31. That's up from $836 million, or 41 cents a share, a year earlier, when its earnings were hurt by lease, legal and restructuring charges. The results beat Wall Street expectations by a penny.

The Richmond, Va., company said revenue, excluding excise taxes, rose 3 percent to $4.46 billion as higher prices were partially offset by higher costs to promote its top-selling Marlboro brand and lower revenue from its financial services business. Analysts polled by FactSet expected revenue of $4.35 billion.

Altria expects its full-year adjusted earnings between $2.35 and $2.41 per share. Analysts expect $2.38 per share.

In a conference call with investors, CEO Marty Barrington said consumers remain under economic pressure because of the end of the payroll tax holiday, as well as continuing high unemployment. Tobacco products also remain a target for tax increases as states grapple with budget shortfalls, he said.

Shares rose 9 cents to $33.79 in morning trading Thursday and have traded between $28.33 and $36.29 in the last 52 weeks.

Cigarette volumes grew less than 1 percent to 33.8 billion cigarettes compared with a year ago. Volumes for discount cigarette brands like L&M increased 7 percent, Marlboro volumes were essentially flat and volume for its other premium brands fell by about 6 percent. Adjusted for trade inventory changes and an extra shipping day, the company said its cigarette volumes fell 1 percent, compared with a total industry decline of 3 percent.

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