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 tobacco grown on US farms is purchased by the largest tobacco companies in the world.
Based on our findings set out in this report, Human Rights Watch believes that no child under age 18 should be permitted to perform work in which they come into direct contact with tobacco in any form, including plants of any size or dried tobacco leaves, due to the inherent health risks posed by nicotine and the pesticides applied to the crop. The US government, US Congress, and tobacco manufacturing and tobacco leaf supply companies should all take urgent steps to progressively remove children from such tasks in tobacco farming.
In the US, it is illegal for children under 18 to buy cigarettes or other tobacco products. However, US law fails to recognize the risks to children of working in tobacco farming. It also does not provide the same protections to children working in agricultureas it does to children working in all other sectors. In agriculture, children as young as 12 can legally work for hire for unlimited hours outside of school on a tobacco farm of any size with parental permission, and children younger than 12 can work on small farms owned and operated by family members. Outside of agriculture, the employment of children under 14 is prohibited, and even 14 and 15-year-olds can only work in certain jobs for a limited number of hours each day.
through direct contracts with tobacco growers or through tobacco leaf supply companies. These include Altria Group, British American Tobacco, China National Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, Japan Tobacco Group, Lorillard, Philip Morris International, and Reynolds American. Some of these companies manufacture the most popular brands of cigarettes sold in the US, including Marlboro, Newport, Camel, and Pall Mall. All companies thata purchase tobacco in the US directly or indirectly have responsibilities to ensure protection of children from hazardous labor, including on tobacco farms, in their supply chains in the US and globally.
though they themselves were frequently US citizens. Regardless of employment or immigration status, the children described working in tobacco to help support their families’ basic needs or to buy essential items such as clothing, shoes, and school supplies. For example, 15-year-old Grace S. told Human Rights Watch why she decided to start working in tobacco farming in North Carolina: I just wanted to help out my mom, help her with the money.
… 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. — Elena G., 13-year-old tobacco worker in North Carolina, May 2013
Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop, and the children interviewed described participating in a range of tasks, including: planting seedlings, weeding, “topping” tobacco to remove flowers, removing nuisance leaves (called “suckers”), applying pesticides, harvesting tobacco leaves by hand or with machines, cutting tobacco plants with “tobacco knives” and loading them onto wooden sticks with sharp metal points, lifting sticks with several tobacco plants, hanging up and taking down sticks with tobacco plants in curing barns, and stripping and sorting dried tobacco leaves.
Health and Safety Risks in Tobacco Farming
Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia frequently described feeling seriously, acutely sick, while working in tobacco farming. For example, Carla P., 16, works for hire on tobacco farms in Kentucky with her parents and her younger sister. She told Human Rights Watch she got sick while pulling the tops off tobacco plants:
I didn’t feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up. I was throwing up for like 10 minutes, just what I ate.
Emilio R., a 16-year-old seasonal worker in eastern North Carolina, who plans to study to be an engineer, said he had headaches that sometimes lasted up to two days while working in tobacco: “With the headaches, it was hard to do anything at all. I didn’t want to move my head.”
Many of the symptoms reported by child tobacco workers are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, known as Green Tobacco Sickness, an occupational health risk specific to tobacco farming that occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while having prolonged contact with tobacco plants. Public health research has found dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting are the most common symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning. Though the long-term effects of nicotine absorption through the skin are unknown, public health research on smoking indicates that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have long-term adverse consequences for brain development. Public health research indicates that non-smoking adult tobacco workers have similar levels of nicotine in their bodies as smokers in the general population.
In addition, many children told Human Rights Watch that they saw tractors spraying pesticides in the fields in which they were working or in adjacent fields. They often described being able to smell or feel the chemical spray as it drifted over them, and reported burning eyes, burning noses, itchy skin, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath, redness and swelling of their mouths, and headache after coming into contact with pesticides. Yanamaria W., 14, who worked on tobacco farms in central Kentucky in 2013 with her parents and 13-year-old brother, told Human Rights Watch:
I was in the field when they started spraying… . I can stand the heat for a long time, but when they spray, then I start to feel woozy and tired. Sometimes it looks like everything is spinning.
While pesticide exposure is harmful for farmworkers of all ages, children are uniquely vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures as their bodies are still developing, and they consume more water and food, and breathe more air, pound for pound, than adults. Tobacco production involves application of a range of chemicals at different stages in the growth process, and several pesticides commonly used during tobacco farming are known neurotoxins. According to public health experts and research, long-term and chronic health effects of pesticide exposure include respiratory problems, cancer, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems.