(Reuters) -Philip Morris International's $16 billion bid for smaller rival Swedish Match highlights the urgency among cigarette makers to tap new and potentially less harmful alternatives as regulation and health concerns snuff out traditional smokes.
Marlboro maker Philip Morris (NYSE:PM) agreed on Wednesday to buy Swedish Match, one of the world's biggest makers of oral nicotine products.
These include Snus - a sucked tobacco product the firm says is less harmful than smoking - as well as Zyn nicotine pouches, which are used the same way and tobacco-free.
Both are niche products but are growing, with Swedish Match's almost 50% share of the global tobacco-free oral nicotine market putting it ahead of both British American Tobacco (NYSE:BTI) and Altria Group (NYSE:MO) in that category.
Thomas Russo, the managing partner at Gardner Russo & Gardner which owns shares in both Philip Morris (PMI) and Swedish Match, welcomed the tie-up as opening a "new field" for PMI's smoke-free products, which include iQOS tobacco heating devices.
"It's a deal that would continue industry consolidation that's been underway for the past decade," he said.
Russo's U.S. investment firm has a 0.47% stake in PMI and a 0.09% holding in Swedish Match, according to Refinitiv data.
Tobacco companies have scrambled over the past decade to find new markets as regulators crack down on cigarettes and more people quit smoking due to the health risks.
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Snus - a Swedish-style snuff - is a moist, smoke-free tobacco product that is placed behind the upper lip, either loose or in portioned sachets.
The global market for snus increased from 7,000 tonnes in 2008 to nearly 10,000 tonnes in 2019, according to data firm Euromonitor.
In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the marketing of Swedish Match's Snus as less harmful than cigarettes.
The possible PMI-Swedish Match deal is the latest in a string of investments by the $900 billion-plus tobacco industry in potentially lower-risk products, including e-cigarettes and tobacco heating devices.
Euromonitor estimates the global market for smokeless tobacco, e-vapour products and heated tobacco was about $67 billion in 2021, nearly three times the size it was in 2016.
PMI Chief Executive Jacek Olczak said last year his company had spent more than $8 billion on reduced-risk products since it began developing them a decade ago.
He said then that PMI would reach its 2025 target of 50% of sales from smoke-free products by growing its existing business, rather than acquisitions.
But buying Swedish Match would give PMI - which was spun off from Altria in 2008 - an established U.S. market and distribution system, Bernstein analyst Callum Elliot said.
"That said, the deal hasn't gone through yet," Elliot added. "I imagine that Swedish Match is a business that could be appealing to other players within the industry, and we wouldn't be surprised to see a counter bid from other companies, particularly Japan Tobacco (OTC:JAPAF) Inc."
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A Japan Tobacco spokesperson said the company does not comment on rumours or speculation.
PMI, the No.3 cigarette company in 2020 after China National Tobacco Corp and British American Tobacco (BAT (LON:BATS)), has not been alone in its attempts to expand beyond combustible tobacco.
News of its move on Swedish Match sent Altria shares down about 9% on Tuesday as investors worried about a step up in competition for the U.S. company.
In 2018, Altria bought a 35% stake in e-cigarette company Juul Labs Inc for $12.8 billion. A year later, it bought 80% of Burger Söhne Holding AG, allowing it to distribute the Swiss company's On! oral nicotine pouches.
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Other rivals are watching with interest.
"We think a multi-category strategy in tobacco and nicotine is the right one," BAT's chief marketing officer Kingsley Wheaton told Reuters on Tuesday.
BAT is the world's No.2 in tobacco-free oral nicotine products behind Swedish Match. Sales at its "new categories" division jumped 51% to 2.05 billion pounds ($2.52 billion) last year, helped by its e-cigarettes and oral nicotine products.
The London-listed company is aiming for the division to reach revenues of 5 billion pounds, and profitability, by 2025.
"As our business transforms, our portfolio transforms, and, so too, our competitive landscape will evolve," Wheaton said.
While PMI is pursuing Swedish Match, other rivals prefer to go it alone.
Imperial Brands (OTC:IMBBY) is focusing on developing its own products in the heated tobacco market, particularly in Europe, a spokesperson said.
But there is still all to play for.
"The whole next-generation product space is still very nascent - no one in the industry has yet created any next-generation product which really, fully replicates the experience of a smoked cigarette or a traditional cigarette," the spokesperson said.
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