CHICAGO (Reuters) - British American Tobacco Plc (BATS.L), the world's second-largest publicly traded tobacco company, said on Thursday first-half profit rose 16 percent, underscoring strength in emerging markets, despite higher fuel prices.
At the same time, Altria Group Inc (MO.N) -- which sells the dominant Marlboro brand but only operates in the United States -- saw a faster decline in the number of cigarettes it sells, raising concerns about how well cash-strapped U.S. consumers are taking to cigarette price increases.
"Price increases accelerated the volume decline seen in the first quarter," Gregg Warren, an analyst at Morningstar said of Altria.
A day earlier, Altria rival Reynolds American Inc RAI.N said its volume decline slowed in the second quarter from the first, easing concerns over how much price increases would hurt the U.S. market.
British American, meanwhile, does not operate in the U.S. market -- although it owns part of Reynolds -- and has benefited from strength in other countries, including emerging markets such as Russia.
"The company says it has scoured the world to see if the slowing economies in the developed world or higher commodity and fuel prices are having any impact," said analyst Adam Spielman at Citi. "The fact there is no significant impact should reassure investors."
The London-based group that makes Kent, Dunhill and Lucky Strike cigarettes, reported adjusted diluted earnings per share of 62.02 pence ($1.23) in the first six months of 2008. That was ahead of forecasts from analysts polled by Reuters that ranged from 60.1 pence to 61.1 pence.
BAT said on Thursday its cigarette volumes rose 1 percent in the first half, compared with its 1 percent to 1.5 percent annual growth target, but its top four brands were up 20 percent.
Altria shares were down 5.6 percent at $20.50 on Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange, while BAT was down 2 percent on the London Stock Exchange.
BAT, like other cigarette groups, has seen some western European markets decline, with smoking bans taking effect in public places and high excise taxes. But it has seen strong growth in emerging markets such as eastern Europe and Asia.
Altria, which spun off Philip Morris International Inc (PM.N) in March, does not have emerging markets to fall back on as it faces declining U.S. cigarette consumption, more local government smoking bans and higher cigarette taxes.
The company, which is counting on cost cutting and expansion into other tobacco businesses to help boost profits, said profit from continuing operations was 45 cents a share in the second quarter, compared with 34 cents a share a year earlier.
Excluding special items, earnings were 46 cents a share, compared with the 45 cent average analyst estimate compiled by Reuters Estimates.
But the company shipped 43.6 billion cigarettes in the quarter, down 4.5 percent from a year earlier and a steeper decline than some analysts expected. Shipment volume fell only 1.2 percent in the first quarter.
Revenue, excluding excise taxes, was $4.18 billion, compared with the average analyst estimate of $4.03 billion.
Separately, the largest publicly traded tobacco company, Philip Morris International Inc (PM.N) agreed on Thursday to buy Canada's Rothmans Inc ROC.TO for about C$2 billion, which would give it full control of Canada's second-largest tobacco company.
Rothmans owns 60 percent of Rothmans Benson & Hedges Inc, while Philip Morris owns the other 40 percent. Morningstar's Warren said the deal will let Philip Morris control the cash flow from RBH, which it would likely invest in emerging markets.
Additional reporting by David Jones in London; Editing by Andre Grenon