The tobacco industry is braced for another bruising legal battle in the US as it faces what may be the biggest lawsuit in its history.
In the case that begins today, 1st April, at the James City County/Williamsburg Circuit Court in the 9th Judicial Circuit of Virginia, four of the world’s largest cigarette manufacturers will seek to counter claims that tobacco cultivation is restricted under an obscure English law of the early 17th century which was only recently rediscovered.
The 1613 Act for the Grant of Benefit in the Commerce of Noxious Weeds, which according to the lawsuit was found when a cupboard in Buckingham Palace was being rearranged to make room for unwanted crowns returned by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, conferred a lifetime monopoly on the growing of tobacco on the Virginia settler John Rolfe – and, crucially, allowed him to pass it on to his heirs.
The lawsuit has been brought by Sheldon Q. Rolfe III (pictured), a 28-year-old strategic hot-tub implementer of Lick Skillet, Virginia, who claims he is John Rolfe’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson.
It asserts that the proceeds of all tobacco growing since 1613 should properly have accrued to the Rolfe family, and further asserts that a hitherto unknown amendment to the United States Constitution as well as hitherto unknown clauses in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the Treaty of Versailles and the North American Free Trade Agreement extend this entitlement beyond the narrow confines of 17th-century Virginia to the entire world.
Damages three times the global economy
The industry is expected to challenge this. One insider at a Big Tobacco company, who asked not to be named, told TobaccoIntelligence that industry lawyers consider the Constitutional and Versailles claims to be especially vulnerable elements of Rolfe’s case, “given that they appear to be printed in Verdana, which was only released in 1996”.
Rolfe is seeking damages including compound interest of $282 trillion, or approximately three times the size of the entire global annual economy – although in an apparent indication of willingness to reach a non-litigated settlement he did say in a statement at a local bar last night that he would be prepared to accept several post-dated cheques.
If his case is successful it is likely to mean the end for heated tobacco and snus, as well as combustibles, though products such as non-tobacco nicotine pouches and e-cigarettes using synthesised nicotine could find their markets substantially increased.
However, observers note that the industry has shrugged off similar challenges before. In 2012 it successfully defended itself in a Cairo court against claims by café owner Mohammed al-Pir that as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the Pharaoh Thutmose III he held a worldwide patent on the concept of rolled paper.
– Vex A. Schuss TobaccoIntelligence legal correspondent
Photo: Mitzi Rolfe