Altria Enters eCigarette Market with MarkTen, but Late and Limited Launch

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Altria Group Inc. (NYSE: MO) may have given guidance on Tuesday of adjusted earnings per share of $2.35 to $2.41 for the full year for earnings growth of 6% to 9%. Ultimately, that will continue leading the charge for higher dividends. The real news is that Altria is living up to its e-cigarette market launch. The bad news is that this is a late launch, it is a very small and limited launch, and much of the product’s future availability and details are not going to be immediately known. The company’s Nu Mark subsidiary is planning to enter what it called the “e-vapor category” as it is introducing the MarkTen brand e-cigarettes into a lead market in Indiana this August.

The tobacco giant also said that Nu Mark is planning to expand distribution of Verve discs to additional stores in Virginia in the second half of this year. The company is already behind the likes of Lorillard Inc. (NYSE: LO) with its Blu e-cigarette and Reynolds American Inc. (NYSE: RAI) with a relaunched Vuse brand e-cigarette. What is interesting is that the ecigarette market may actually be a game-changer for the world of high dividend payments. Honestly, you can make the argument either way but that will be addressed another time.

The MarkTen e-cigarette will sell for $9.50 and users can buy a kit to recharge the battery and cartridges, and it will come with regular and menthol flavors. What is not known is how long it is going to take Altria to move into a full production for a nationwide launch.

With about 45 million Americans smoking, the market opportunity here is huge. Internet entrepreneur Sean Parker has also reportedly invested in ecigarette maker NJOY as part of a $75 million capital raise. Altria’s MarkTen will be manufactured in China but the chemical insertion is being made in America.

There is no word on what this means for Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM) and its international launches. Tuesday’s big ecigarette news from Altria actually is just the second part of what may be a five-part to ten-part effort. Still, it at least gets the ball rolling at a time when domestic case volumes decline year after year and when tobacco prices rise due to higher taxes and due to the company having to make up on otherwise lost income.

Unfortunately for the company, Altria has played way too slow on what feels like something they should have recognized as an obvious new market. Even if ecigarettes do not end up being a home run, this is at a minimum a new product line that at least allows the companies selling smoked-cancer a hedge against dwindling markets. Stay tuned.