British American Tobacco Plc’s unit in Sri Lanka says it’s poised to lose its dominant position in the market to leaf-rolled cigars made by small local rivals. Ceylon Tobacco Co.’s profit margin will continue to narrow as an increase in levies on cigarettes prompts some smokers to switch to the cheaper alternative, said Emma Ridley, finance director of the Colombo-based BAT unit. The company’s operating profit margin, the highest among listed Asian peers, narrowed to 64 percent in 2016 from 67 percent a year earlier in a cigarette market estimated at about $1.1 billion.
The gap between the price of cigarettes and beedis, cheap tobacco wrapped in a coarse leaf, has widened after the government raised excise duties and slapped a 15 percent value-added tax last year. The lowest-priced offering sold by Ceylon Tobacco — the only licensed manufacturer of cigarettes — is about four times more expensive than leaf-rolled products, which are produced by a segment of the industry that’s relatively less regulated and has seen smaller increases in levies.
“In 2017, we foresee the beedi industry capturing at least half the tobacco market, posing a serious threat to the legal cigarette industry,” said Ridley. “As the affordability of legally manufactured cigarettes continues to diminish, more consumers are expected to downgrade to this cheaper alternative.”
Beedis accounted for about 44 percent of the total tobacco market last year, up from 20 percent in 2007, Ridley said. The share of smuggled cigarettes is expected to rise to about 8 percent this year from 2 percent in 2016, according to the company.
The numbers for the market share shift being claimed for beedis are exaggerated, said Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne. The government is in discussions with farmers cultivating tobacco to wean them away from the crop, he said.
Sri Lanka hasn’t seen any evidence of an increase in the market share of beedis as imports of tendu leaf haven’t climbed, said Palitha Abeykoon, chairman of the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol. Tighter regulations on the beedi segment are being considered, he said. The authority estimates market share using surveys that are based on prevalence of use and not stick count.
The government statistics are based on officially imported tendu leaves, according to Ridley. Since there has been evidence of a local source of tendu leaves as well as seizures of smuggled tendu leaves, these are “additional components” that need to be included in the calculation, she said.
Some smokers of Capstan cigarettes, the company’s lowest-priced brand, have cut back on the number of sticks they buy after the price increases and also purchase beedis, said K.K. Badra, 58. She runs a kiosk that sells soft drinks, packaged snacks and other food items apart from tobacco products in Maligawatta, a Colombo suburb.
Ceylon Tobacco is looking to contain the impact from higher levies. It has shut some of its leaf depots and reduced factory shifts to curb costs. To sustain profitability it’s working on “smart cost management, streamlining processes, identifying consumer segments and addressing their needs,” said Ridley.
The company is also widening its portfolio. It started selling its popular Gold Leaf brand in a smaller packet of 12 sticks apart from the 20-stick packet, introduced a new product Gold Leaf Red and is unveiling John Player Navy Cut, which will be sold for 40 rupees a stick.
Still, those efforts may not completely offset the impact from the higher levies. Both revenue and net income will grow at a slower pace this year, according to Chayanika Ranasinghe, an analyst at CT CLSA Securities Ltd., in Colombo. The steep decline in sales volume seen after the November action is expected to “moderate, particularly if there are no further drastic tax increments or regulations,” she said.
Shares of Ceylon Tobacco fell 2.9 percent to 971 rupees as of 9:31 a.m. in Colombo. The stock has climbed 20 percent this year, compared with the 4.3 percent gain in the nation’s benchmark Colombo All-Share Index.
Measures being taken by Sri Lanka are in line with those by governments across the world to curb smoking. In 2015, the island nation ordered 60 percent of a cigarette packet’s surface be covered by pictorial health warnings and a few months later increased it to 80 percent. China, where 44 percent of all cigarettes are smoked, banned smoking in public places in 2015. And India and Indonesia have been raising cigarette taxes.
Per capita incomes in Sri Lanka have more than doubled in the past decade. Government data show expenditure on liquor and tobacco in urban households has fallen even as incomes have risen, said Mangalee Goonetilleke, an analyst at Asia Securities. While consumers would continue to spend on tobacco, the allocation as a proportion of household expenditure has dropped over the years.
“This is mainly due to households allocating more toward health care, education and transportation as income levels grow,” Goonetilleke said. “However, in the case of improving income levels, the beneficiaries would be the legal players.”