The Best Dividend in Big Pharma: Sanofi SA (SNY), Pfizer Inc. (PFE), GlaxoSmithKline plc (GSK)

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Big pharma's a good place to start if you're looking for dividend stocks. Many of the largest players in the industry sport top dividends, rewarding long-term investors for their patience and faith. Separating the best big pharma stocks from the laggards can be a tricky affair given all of the drugs, businesses, and products that one major pharmaceutical company alone can offer. It's even trickier when you're on the lookout for income-paying stocks for the long run, given the patent cliff's toll on big pharma and the recent spate of companies spinning off unwanted businesses.

However, a quick glance across the Atlantic reveals one steady company with its eyes on the future, a stock that income investors everywhere should love: Sanofi SA (NYSE:SNY).

Sanofi SA (ADR) (NYSE:SNY)Why Sanofi? This French pharmaceutical giant might not be your first thought when you think of big pharma's titans, but make no mistake: This company's in pole position for the long haul.

Sanofi's taken a hit lately from the patent expiration of Plavix, the company's once-flagship blood clot drug that has since been torn down by generic competition. The drug's still one of Sanofi's top sellers with more than $600 million in sales in the most recent quarter, but it lost more than 6% in revenue on a constant currency basis.

Income investing is for the long term, however, and Sanofi's got more than enough in its cabinet of drugs to fuel the future despite Plavix's hits. Insulin medication Lantus will power Sanofi through 2015, when its patent expires; the drug is the company's top seller, recording more than  $1.7 billion in the last quarter alone, and sales are growing at a steady double-digit clip. Although Sanofi still expects profits to fall by as much as 5% in 2013 because of generic competition -- an expectation that sent shares plunging when announced -- the company's pipeline and recent moves should ease an income investor's concern over the future.

The company's acquisition of Genzyme back in 2011 has turned out to be a great move. With the approval of multiple sclerosis drug Aubagio last year and new rare disease treatment Kynamro fresh off its own approval, Sanofi's riding a wave of regulatory victories. These drugs and more should help the company deal with future patent expirations such as Lantus; it's a key factor that distinguishes Sanofi's stability over more risky competitors like AbbVie Inc (NYSE:ABBV), which relies on one drug -- Humira -- to power more than half of its sales and could be crippled by its patent loss.

But are future drug sales and relief from the patent cliff Sanofi's only distinguishing features over other big pharma dividend players? Hardly.

Separating from the pack Sanofi might not offer the highest dividend in big pharma; its 3.6% yield only equals that of big-name rival Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE), and fellow pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline plc (NYSE:GSK) offers a superior 5.1% yield. That's a tempting pick for dividend investors on a purely financial basis.

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