CVS decision to stop selling cigarettes no big deal to Big Tobacco

February 5, 2014: 1:14 PM ET

The world's tobacco giants are heavily focused on sales in developing markets, their only source of growth.

140205103811-cigarettes-cvs-620xaFORTUNE -- The announcement Wednesday morning by drugstore chain CVS (CVS) that it will stop selling cigarettes is a big deal. It further cements the widespread rejection of smoking in the U.S. and other Western nations. But for the world's biggest tobacco companies, it's almost meaningless.

Yes, tobacco sales generate about $2 billion in sales at CVS alone. And yes, this move will ding earnings for the 7,600-store chain, as stock analysts are already reporting. And other chains -- not only competitors like Rite-Aid (RAD) and Walgreens (WAG), but perhaps even grocery stores and big-boxers like Wal-Mart (WMT) and Costco (COST) -- might soon follow suit. Target (TGT) stopped selling tobacco in 1996.

But the global tobacco companies long ago moved on from the U.S. market. It's been shrinking for years as people have quit smoking, and Big Tobacco knows it will continue to shrink. So the companies have funneled their marketing and investments toward developing countries, where they see years of growth ahead. The stocks of all the big tobacco companies were about even on Wednesday after the announcement.

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It's not that they've given up on the U.S. market, of course -- they are simply managing its decline (in part by investing in e-cigarettes, which, by the way, CVS doesn't sell and now says it never will). Tobacco sales in the U.S. still amount to $108 billion a year. But the rate of smoking fell from about 40% of the population in 1970 to about 18% in 2004. It has hovered around that point ever since, despite big increases in prices and taxes. But teen smoking rates have fallen in recent years to record lows, and smokers are increasingly switching to cheaper (and lower-margin) brands. Add to those factors the social stigma of smoking and severe governmental restrictions on marketing tobacco, and there can be no hope that the U.S. market will ever grow again.

Not so elsewhere. While China is by far the biggest tobacco market -- consuming nearly 40% of the world's cigarettes -- it is controlled by a state-owned monopoly, the China National Tobacco Corp. Outside that market, global sales are dominated by a handful of companies. Three of them -- Phillip Morris International (PM), British American Tobacco (BATS), and Japan Tobacco (JAPAF) -- overwhelmingly represent the biggest share of sales in developing nations.

Global cigarette sales will rise by about 26%, to $906 billion, by 2017, according to Euromonitor International.

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Much of that money will flow to the U.S. PMI was spun off from Altria in 2007. It markets Altria's brands (including the world leader, Marlboro) outside of the U.S. British American Tobacco, meanwhile, owns 40% of Reynolds American (RAI), the No. 2 tobacco company in the U.S. after Altria Group (MO). About three-quarters of BAT's cigarettes are sold in developing countries, according to a report on global smoking trends from the National Institutes of Health.

Growth in developing countries is thanks to two main factors: simple population growth and increasing incomes. Smoking rates in those countries are far higher than they are in the U.S., but even when they slow, the growth of the overall population tends to make up for the decline.

There are major campaigns underway by groups like the World Health Organization to educate people about the dangers of smoking, but those will likely take years to have a substantial effect. In the meantime, developing countries are helping Big Tobacco thrive.

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