Brazil and India, two of the world’s top producers of tobacco, ban children from working in tobacco farming. So do Russia, Kazakhstan and Uganda. There’s good reason — children who work in tobacco fields face a high risk of injury or poisoning.
But in the United States, it’s perfectly legal for children as young as 12 to work on tobacco farms.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 138-page report that details conditions for children working on tobacco farms in the four states where 90 percent of US tobacco is grown: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. The reality is disturbing.
“Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in U.S. Tobacco Farming,” reveals that children working in tobacco are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides and other dangers.
“The hardest of all the crops we’ve worked in is tobacco,” said Dario A., a 16-year-old tobacco worker in Kentucky who spoke with Human Rights Watch. You get tired. It takes the energy out of you. You get sick, but then you have to go right back to the tobacco the next day.”
When Fusion’s investigative unit covered the same issue in February, we found children as young as 8 years old working barefoot in tobacco fields. The young workers had little oversight from either the growers, the Farm Bureau or the tobacco companies.
The double standard is obvious: it’s illegal for children under 18 to buy tobacco products, but they can work the fields, where they are exposed to tobacco-related health hazards and other dangerous working conditions. Child tobacco workers often work 50-60 hours a week in extreme heat and unsanitary working conditions.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 141 children ages 7 to 17 in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. The group found that the majority of child farm workers are not new immigrants or undocumented. Most are US citizens of Hispanic origin.
Hazardous occupation and low pay
HRW found more than two out of three children said they felt suddenly ill while working in tobacco fields, reporting nausea, dizziness, headaches and difficulty sleeping after a day’s work with tobacco. Some said they vomited on the job. These are all signs of green tobacco sickness or nicotine poisoning.
“We started cutting [tobacco plants], and I had to go home,” 9-year-old Patrick W. told Human Rights Watch. “I kept on coughing [heaving], and I had to eat crackers and drink some Gatorade…. I threw up a little bit. It took two or three hours before I felt better.”
Dr. Thomas Arcury, the vice chair for research at the Department of Family & Community Medicine at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine spoke with Fusion last year about the dangers of tobacco for our report.
“We don’t know what tobacco exposure poses for children other than they can get nicotine poisoning,” Arcury said. “What the long-term effects of that exposures are have not been studied so we really don’t know.”
In a study, Arcury found that non-smoking workers had nicotine levels equivalent to regular smokers by the end of the tobacco season.
“Children who are working in the fields, we would expect at the end of the tobacco season to have ash nicotine in their system as would smokers,” he said.
These health worries are compounded by the general dangers of farming. According to the Department of Labor, agriculture has the highest fatal occupational injury rate of any industry. In 2012, 28 children under the age of 18 died from occupational injuries according to NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). Two-thirds worked in agriculture.
Farmworkers are among the poorest populations in the U.S., and children interviewed by both Human Rights Watch and Fusion said they work in tobacco and other crops to supplement their family’s income. They use money to buy basic needs like school supplies, clothes and shoes.
The report released on Wednesday found that tobacco farmed in the U.S. enters the supply chains of at least eight major manufacturers of tobacco products. The manufacturers — who either purchase tobacco through direct contracts with tobacco growers or through tobacco-leaf supply companies —include Altria Group, British American Tobacco, China National Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, Japan Tobacco Group, Lorillard, Philip Morris International, and Reynolds American.
The tobacco companies declined Fusion’s request for an interview but nine companies, with the exception of China National Tobacco, responded to Human Rights Watch and stated that they have policies in place to prohibit child labor in their supply chains.
HRW considers the employment of children under 18 in the tobacco industry discriminatory and a violation of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) convention on child labor.
“The burden of weaker US labor law protections for agricultural workers, as compared to non-agricultural workers, falls overwhelming on Hispanic American citizens and immigrants,” the report read. “Most hired agricultural workers in the United States are Hispanic. As a result, the inadequate labor protections for agricultural workers have a disparate impact on Hispanic American citizens and non-citizen immigrants, amounting to discrimination under international law.”
Jane Buchanan, one of the authors of the report, summarized the findings in plain terms.
“The U.S. is failing America's children by not recognizing the particular hazards of tobacco farming and keeping kids safe,” she said.