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Reynolds American, the producer of Camel cigarettes, said it's in talks to acquire Lorillard in a transaction that would create a closer competitor to U.S. tobacco market leader Altria Inc.
Lorillard also confirmed the discussions in a statement today, following reports that a deal may be close after months of negotiation. British American Tobacco, the U.K. company that owns 42% of Reynolds, said it expects to support the transaction by subscribing for additional shares to maintain its stake. Separately, Imperial Tobacco Group said it's in talks with the U.S. companies to buy some brands.
The deal -- which would follow months of on-again, off- again talks -- is complicated by its size and the involvement of several companies. Together, Reynolds and Greensboro, N.C.-based Lorillard have a market value of about $56 billion and annual sales of more than $13 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Merger speculation has propelled stocks of both companies this year.
"This confirms what we've known -- that the U.S. cigarette industry is heating up," Chris Wickham, an analyst at Oriel Securities in London, said by phone. "This is the first stage for some big battle lines that are being drawn."
An agreement could be announced as early as July 14, people familiar with the situation said. There is no guarantee a deal will get done, the companies said in separate statements.
Shrinking U.S. demand for cigarettes is putting pressure on tobacco companies to team up. Cigarette shipment volumes fell by a median of 2.9% among the industry's top U.S. companies, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Industries. While electronic cigarettes offer a growth opportunity, that market is still young and faces mounting regulation.
If the three companies reach an agreement, Lorillard's biggest brand, Newport, would join Camel as the combined company moves to compete with Altria, whose brands account for more than half of the U.S. retail cigarette market. Altria's Marlboro by itself has market share in the U.S. of about 44%, according to the company's website.
As part of the deal, Imperial Tobacco will buy some brands from Reynolds and Lorillard in an effort to head off any antitrust concerns that the U.S. government may have, according to people familiar with the matter. The U.K. company is lining up as much as $7 billion to fund such a purchase, they said.
Imperial is most likely interested in Reynolds's Kool, Winston and Salem brands, though may also be attracted by Lorillard's Maverick discount label, according to Erik Bloomquist, a tobacco analyst at Berenberg Bank in London.