U.S. Tobacco Stocks Fall Amid Concerns About Lawsuits
New York, June 24 (Bloomberg) -- Shares of Philip Morris Cos. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. fell after the tobacco industry's fourth-consecutive legal defeat increased speculation that cigarette makers' litigation costs will rise.
U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum on Friday ordered R.J. Reynolds to pay $15 million to a Kansas smoker, saying the company ``concealed the addictive nature of tobacco.'' Lungstrum's punitive-damage award was 76 times greater than the $196,416 of damages levied by the jury.
The award is the first involving punitive damages against a tobacco company in more than a decade by a federal court, where the higher standards of establishing proof than on the state level usually favor defendants. The decision also was the first courtroom victory for an individual smoker in the Midwest against the industry, which has recently loss cases in Oregon, California and Florida.
``Most people had felt the litigation picture overall was going to be improving, and the concern was over the aggregate claims,'' said Arthur Cecil, an analyst at T. Rowe Price Associates, which manages $159.8 billion, including R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris shares. ``We've had a couple of lost individual cases, and suddenly concern is over the individual suits.''
Shares of R.J. Reynolds, the No. 2 U.S. tobacco company, slid $5.85, or 9.5 percent, to $55.70, the biggest decline in more than two years. Philip Morris, the largest cigarette maker, dropped $3.85, or 7.3 percent, to $48.80. Standard and Poor's Supercomposite Tobacco Index fell 18.20, or 7.1 percent, to 238.41.
``While we haven't seen a dramatic pickup in individual trial cases, it could happen,'' said analyst Matt Spitznagle of Northern Trust Corp., whose $330 billion in assets includes about 10.1 million Philip Morris shares.
UST Inc. shares and Imperial Tobacco Group Plc and British American Tobacco Plc American depositary receipts also fell today. British American Tobacco is being sued by a New Zealand smoker, the first such suit in the country, according to a report today from the New Zealand Herald.
Cigarette makers have lost five verdicts in a row on the West Coast, with awards ranging from $21.7 million to $100 million. All of the decisions are being appealed.
``The ratio of punitive to compensatory damages was much higher than expected,'' said Tom Schrader, head of listed trading at Legg Mason Wood Walker in Baltimore.
Earlier this month, tobacco companies were told to pay $5.5 million to a flight attendant who claims second-hand smoke on airlines caused her breathing problems. Also, a state appeals court in Oregon reinstated a $79.5 million award against Philip Morris, and cigarette makers were told to pay a Florida smoker $37.5 million.
Settlement With States
In the three and a half years since cigarette manufacturers reached the $206 billion settlement of health-care claims with U.S. states, the majority of individual suits had been decided in the companies' favor. In the settlement, the companies agreed to limit advertising and pay for a foundation to reduce teen smoking if the states didn't sue over the industry's past behavior.
Before this month, tobacco-industry shares had either reached all-time highs, as R.J. Reynolds did, or were trading near those levels. Philip Morris had more than doubled in the two and a half years leading up to June 1, as the industry won cases and investors looked for companies with proven earnings growth.
``When the stock was a big winner, the lawsuits were not priced into the stock,'' said James McGlynn, who helps manage more than $5 billion at Summit Investment Partners, which owns shares of Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. ``Even though the (industry) stock has a low (price-to-earnings ratio), it still has rallied and was vulnerable.''
Recent losses aren't necessarily an indication that tobacco companies will continue to lose or be subject to more suits, T. Rowe's Cecil said.
``I'm not saying it's not a point of concern,'' he said. ``They've had a bad period here, but going forward it could be improving.''
R.J. Reynolds, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said in a statement that the $15 million award is ``excessive and unwarranted'' and that it will be overturned on appeal.