Daily Dispatches
Tobacco farm workers near Warsaw, Ky.
Associated Press/Photo by Ed Reinke
Tobacco farm workers near Warsaw, Ky.

Big Tobacco’s little workers


Children working on tobacco farms often develop symptoms of nicotine poisoning, known as Green Tobacco Sickness, from absorbing nicotine through their skin when they handle tobacco plant leaves, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday. The children, some as young as 7, are further endangered by exposure to pesticides, lack of protective gear, extreme heat, and long hours with insufficient breaks.

The report is based on interviews with 141 children between the ages of 7 and 17, many of them children of Hispanic immigrants working in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. It indicates 66 percent of the children interviewed reported nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, or loss of appetite, symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. “It happens when you’re out in the sun,” a 16-year-old girl in Kentucky told Human Rights Watch. “You want to throw up. And you drink water because you’re so thirsty, but the water makes you feel worse. You throw up right there when you’re cutting [tobacco plants], but you just keep cutting.”

Many of the children reported that they did not have access to toilets or a place to wash their hands at the work site, so they eat with tobacco- and pesticide-tainted hands. The median age for beginning work on tobacco farms is 13 and most of the children work an average of 50 to 60 hours per week. According to the report, there is no minimum age for children to work on a small farm, and with parental consent, a child as young as 12 can work unlimited hours outside of school on bigger farms.

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Attempts to regulate the agriculture industry has been difficult because historically children have worked alongside their parents on family farms. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor recommended a proposal to make sweeping changes in agricultural child labor laws—including prohibiting children under 16 from working on tobacco farms—but faced strong opposition from the farming community.

In a letter to the Department of Labor, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Bill Northey, secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, wrote that the legislation would impede the legacy of passing farms on to the next generation. High school students often work on farms in the summer, not only for extra cash, but to acquire the skills and experience needed for a successful agricultural career, they said. 

“We both appreciate the work ethic and life lessons that we learned working and growing up on our family farm,” Branstad and Northey wrote.

In response, the Department of Labor decided instead to work with groups like 4-H and Future Farmers of America to promote safer agricultural practices. But proponents of the legislation pointed out that the educational programs wouldn’t reach the children of migrant workers, who often don’t belong to those organizations.

Human Rights Watch met with 10 of the world’s largest cigarette makers and tobacco suppliers to encourage them to adopt policies that require adequate protection for child laborers on tobacco farms. “Tobacco companies shouldn’t benefit from hazardous child labor,” said MargaretWurth, the report’s co-author. “They have a responsibility to adopt clear, comprehensive policies that get children out of dangerous work on tobacco farms, and make sure the farms follow the rules.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Julie Borg
Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.


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