updated 1/28/2004 12:54:13 PM ET 2004-01-28T17:54:13

Tobacco and food giant Altria Group Inc.'s fourth-quarter earnings rose 20 percent from a year ago, boosted by improved results in its domestic tobacco business and gains in its international business thanks to the weak dollar.

Altria, the New York-based parent of the world's largest cigarette company, said Wednesday that it earned $2.09 billion, or $1.02 a share, for the October-December quarter, compared with $1.77 billion, or 85 cents a share, in the same period a year ago.

The 2003 quarterly figures included a charge of 4 cents a share to cover such costs as a tobacco legal settlement and the relocation of its Philip Morris domestic tobacco headquarters. Excluding that charge, the results were in line with the $1.06 a share consensus of analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call.

Revenues for the fourth quarter increased 10.2 percent to $20.7 billion.

In midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Altria shares rose 61 cents to $55.61.

For year ended Dec. 31, the company earned $9.2 billion, or $4.52 a share, compared with $11.1 billion, or $5.21 a share, for 2002. Revenues were $81.83 billion, compared with $80.41 billion a year ago.

The company's Philip Morris domestic tobacco sales helped boost both the quarterly and year-end figures for Altria, with Marlboro and Parliament cigarette brands gaining retail share. That lifted the overall division's retail share, as well, which now accounts for 49.1 percent of the domestic market vs. 48.8 percent a year ago.

Still, Altria continued to struggle with Kraft Foods, in which it owns a majority stake. The maker of Oreo cookies, Velveeta cheese and Oscar Mayer late Tuesday reported a 7 percent decline in fourth-quarter profits _ the latest in a series of financial disappointments _ and said 2004 earnings also will come in below expectations.

In addition, Kraft, the nation's largest food company, disclosed plans to cut 6,000 jobs, or 6 percent of its work force, and close up to 20 plants worldwide by 2007.

"In our worldwide food business, 2003 was a difficult year, but actions were taken in the second half to address challenges faced by Kraft Foods," said Louis C. Camilleri, chairman and chief executive officer of Altria.

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