Richmond likes to be known as the River City, but Philip Morris USA’s massive manufacturing center just south of downtown could win the nickname Cigarette City.
The manufacturing center – or MC, as the company calls it — is celebrating its 40th birthday, and the tobacco giant opened its gates Thursday to give reporters a peek at how it produces what amounts to half of all cigarettes sold in the United States.
Cameras were prohibited in the production area to prevent competitors from seeing the plant’s operations. What lenses would have captured was 20,000 cigarettes being produced per minute in Philip Morris’s “super high speed” production bays. Cigarettes speed so quickly through the process that they are but a blur as they pass.
The nearly 2 million-square-foot facility sits on 200 acres at 3601 Commerce Road. It runs 24 hours a day, five days a week, with about 2,000 employees, said production manager Kevin Weaver. The end result is 600 million cigarettes produced and packaged per day.
The major subsidiary of West End-based Altria Group, Philip Morris produces 176 different types of cigarettes under various brands.
Marlboro is its lead brand by far, accounting for 40 percent of all cigarettes sold in the United States, the company said. Marlboro Gold cigarettes are the biggest seller.
The company has put more than $200 million in upgrades and maintenance into the MC over the past few years and is in hiring mode at the facility.
That growth comes amid pressure on the cigarette industry from new regulations and changing habits. Consumption of cigarettes is in decline, but the market for smokeless tobacco and nicotine products continues to grow.
Electronic cigarettes and other smokeless products are new sources of potential revenue for the company, said Billy Gifford, president and CEO of Philip Morris USA.
The company is testing a product called Verve, a polymer disk containing tobacco-derived nicotine.
“We see it as an opportunity,” Gifford said Thursday of smokeless products.
Still, 75 percent of Altria’s profits come from products that are meant to be smoked: cigarettes and cigars. Altria’s second quarter earnings were $1.27 billion, from revenue of $4.5 billion.