US chewing gum maker Wm. Wrigley Jr. has reported higher fourth-quarter and full-year net earnings, boosted by strong sales growth.

The company posted net earnings of US$109.9m, or 49 cents per share, for the fourth quarter to 31 December, compared to $107.8m, or 48 cents per share, in the year-ago period. Fourth-quarter sales increased to $821.2m from $739.3m a year earlier.

For the full year 2003, Wrigley reported net earnings of $445.9m, or $1.98 per share, compared to $401.5m, or $1.78 per share, in the previous year. Sales for the full year increased to $3.07bn from $2.75bn in 2002.

"This was a very positive and productive year for the company. We were able to deliver double-digit sales and profit increases, while also devoting significant resources to launching new products, diversifying our confectionery portfolio, supporting our brands and investing in our infrastructure," said chief operating officer Ronald Waters.

The company said the increase in 2003 sales reflected a 6% sales gain in the Americas helped by higher sales of Orbit in the US and Juicy Fruit pellet products in the US and Canada.

International net sales increased by 16% as a result of favourable currency translation, overall growth in volume and selected selling price increases, Wrigley said, adding that strong shipments across Europe more than offset the slightly lower shipments in Asia resulting from the impact of the SARS crisis.