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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.

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