Cigarette makers and the budding marijuana industry seem like a natural fit. But alcoholic-beverage companies are the ones leading investors to, well, the green.
Tobacco giants Altria Group Inc. and Philip Morris International Inc. are among the worst-performing consumer stocks in the S&P 500 this year, as cigarette consumption declines and innovative products remain only a tiny source of revenue. Contrast that with the situation over at Constellation Brands Inc. and Diageo Plc, which are both trading near all-time highs as they get a head start in expanding beyond booze and into the cannabis space. Their share-price gains aren’t entirely due to such investments (in fact, Constellation’s stock has bounced around this year as shipping costs eat into beer profits). But cannabis is the next growth frontier and shareholders are cheering the early movers.
The U.S. tobacco industry hasn’t said much about marijuana, even though it would seem to be a natural extension of their smoking products and an obvious path to forge. I made a video about this two years ago and explained how it wouldn’t be inconceivable to see the industry throw its lobbying power behind cannabis as the U.S. inevitably moves toward legalization. I mean, is there any industry more equipped to navigate the regulatory hurdles? But little has changed since then.
Cigarette sales volume has slowed alongside higher gas prices, and newer vapor products may be cannibalizing traditional smokes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is also considering drastically reducing nicotine in cigarettes to make them less addictive. Meanwhile, Philip Morris has faced an uphill battle in winning approval from the agency to market its IQos tobacco-heating stick as a reduced-risk product. London-based rival British American Tobacco Plc has its own heated-tobacco product called Neocore (inherited from acquiring Reynolds American last year) that already secured FDA clearance and will likely beat IQos to the market.
All the major consumer-staples companies are confronting growth challenges and trying to figure to out what’s next. But while the tobacco industry has failed to generate much excitement lately, the alcohol space is delivering a more intriguing story.
Constellation Brands, the company behind Robert Mondavi wines, Svedka vodka and Corona in the U.S., has been gobbling up craft brewers as part of an M&A-driven strategy to add more beverages that consumers are willing to pay up for. Along the way, it’s also taken a stake in Canada’s Canopy Growth Corp. — ticker WEED — a stake that’s now worth about $4 billion. Canada has been the hot spot for investment as it becomes the first G-20 nation to legalize marijuana. Just nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational use for adults, though the list continues to grow.
Diageo, the maker of Guinness beer, is in discussions with at least three Canadian cannabis producers about a possible investment or alliance to make marijuana-infused beverages, BNN Bloomberg TV reported last week. Molson Coors Brewing Co. is also starting a joint venture with Quebec-based Hydropothecary Corp. But while all the action is north of the border, this money is being spent with an eye toward the U.S. market.
It’s only a matter of time before the tobacco giants get in on this, and when they do other players will need to watch out. But for now, it’s moves like Constellation’s that are lighting up the market.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., media and telecommunications. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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