Children Who Work on Tobacco Farms Exposed to Harmful Toxins

Children as young as seven are legally working on U.S. tobacco farms, and the practice is, not surprisingly, harming their the health.

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Children as young as seven are legally working on U.S. tobacco farms, and the practice is, not surprisingly, harming their the health.

In a 138-page report titled "Tobacco's Hidden Children," published today by Human Rights Watch, the authors write on the work conditions of American child farm laborers harvesting tobacco:

Children working on tobacco farms in the United States are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers. Child tobacco workers often labor 50 or 60 hours a week in extreme heat, use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads, and climb into the rafters of barns several stories tall, risking serious injuries and falls.

The report authors spoke with more than 140 children, ages 7 to 17 from May to October 2013, and learned that many display symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, headaches, skin rashes, loss of appetite and others. "I would barely eat anything because I wouldn’t get hungry. …Sometimes I felt like I needed to throw up. …I felt like I was going to faint. I would stop and just hold myself up with the tobacco plant," said 13-year-old Elena.

The majority of children interviewed were of Hispanic origin. Many were U.S. citizens born to non-citizen parents, and almost all reported working out of a need to provide for themselves and their families, who are overwhelmingly poor. Per the report:

In 2008-2009, the median annual income among US crop workers was $18,750. A 2008 report from the US Department of Agriculture found poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees in the United States.

Disturbingly, most of these children have no protections under U.S. law. According to the report, children 12 and over can work on a tobacco farm of any size, for unlimited hours, as long as they are granted parental permission and don't work instead of going to school. Children under 12 can work on small, family farms. Agriculture is the only industry that allows children of this age to work — others generally don't allow employment of children under 14, at all.

According to the Associated Press, the Department of Labor proposed a law that would bar children under the age of 16 from working on tobacco farms in 2011, but withdrew it in 2012. This could be due, at least in part, to rhetoric surrounding farming as a storied American tradition that builds character in children. Kentucky state Senator Paul Hornback, who has worked in tobacco since he was ten, said "People get pretty extreme about trying to protect everybody from everything... It's hard manual labor, but there's nothing wrong with hard manual labor." Joey Scott, a tobacco farmer in North Carolina, expressed a similar sentiment:

I was raised as a child on a tobacco farm. My parents felt it was safe enough for me to be here. I felt it was safe enough for my children... I attained a lot of my values through the work I did alongside my parents and grandparents, by being in the fields, understanding the everyday struggles.

But Scott doesn't employ anyone under the age of 18 to work on his farm.

HRW researcher Margaret Wurth said that U.S. agricultural labor laws are extremely lax compared with those in other countries, telling the BBC that "countries like Brazil and India prohibit children under 18 from doing many tasks involved in tobacco farming." Writing in the Guardian, Wurth recommended that the U.S. adopt an 18-and-over policy for tobacco farming. And if it doesn't, she said, tobacco firms should be better about monitoring their supply:

Tobacco companies should make it clear that they will not buy tobacco from farms that use child labor, and support alternative educational and employment opportunities. And Congress should enact laws restricting child labor in tobacco fields.

And smokers should take this as yet another good reason to quit.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.