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Scandal: American Child Workers 'Endangered' by Nicotine Exposure in Tobacco Fields

Human Rights Watch report said children began work around age 13 planting, weeding and harvesting nicotine plants.

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Human Rights Watch contacted10 tobacco manufacturers to ask for information about child labor laws they have in place on farms where their tobacco is sourced. HRW said Philip Morris International has the most comprehensive and protective policies, which are being implemented in its global supply chain. None of the companies, however, have global policies that prohibit all work by children under 18 at tobacco farms.

Altria Group, the company that holds Philip Morris USA, said it had "engaged" with Human Rights Watch to understand the concerns raised in their research, and said it would work with the Farm Labor Practices Group, which it helped found, to ensure it complies with labor regulations.

"Altria’s tobacco companies do not condone the unlawful employment or exploitation of farm workers, especially those under the age of 18, and actively work to address workplace issues associated with farm labor," said a company spokesperson in an email.

Its code of conduct states that domestic tobacco growers may not assign anyone under 18 to work in hazardous agricultural occupations.

"As consumers in the US and other affluent countries smoke less, they need to get more smokers in developing countries, and in order for them to keep the price of cigarettes relatively low, they have to keep the price of labor low,” said Marty Otañez, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, and a board member at the Human Rights and Tobacco Control Network. “So I think they would probably refrain from stopping buying tobacco from farms that produce with child labor, because in one sense, if they did that, they would have little to no farms to buy from."

Otañez said the problem is not simply eliminating child labor, but creating a more fair working environment so adults are not reliant on children’s wages.

"The report gives us a view from the soil of solutions from the individuals who are affected by all these problems,” Otañez said. “So if you look at a child laborer, who is 14 years old and produces leaves in North Carolina: what that individual wants – and what the report demonstrates – is that they want fairness and dignity in their life. I think those are two things that the industry, whether it's Phillip Morris, or the leaf buyers, they're just not set up to do because of their interest to maintain shareholder value."