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

US tobacco fields employ hundreds of children, some as young as 13, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Wednesday that says the children are being exposed to health dangers posed by nicotine.

Nearly three quarters of the children interviewed for the report said they had experienced the sudden onset of symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning, also known as Green Tobacco Sickness: vomiting, loss of appetite, dizziness, rashes and other irritations.

“As the school year ends, children are heading into the tobacco fields, where they can’t avoid being exposed to dangerous nicotine, without smoking a single cigarette,” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) and co-author of the report. “It’s no surprise the children exposed to poisons in the tobacco fields are getting sick.”

From May to October 2013, HRW conducted interviews with 141 child tobacco workers between the ages of seven and 17 in the four states where 90% of tobacco is cultivated in the US: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

“I would barely eat anything because I wouldn’t get hungry,” a 13-year-old named Elena told Human Rights Watch in May 2013. “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.”

The child workers perform tasks like planting, weeding and harvesting, which put them in direct contact with the leaves. Nicotine can then be absorbed through the skin – just as it is with nicotine patches – exposing kids to high levels of nicotine.

Workers can absorb up to 54 milligrams of dissolved nicotine in one day of work, the equivalent of 50 cigarettes, according to a 2005 study by Dr Robert McKnight, of the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.

“These kids are getting exposed to nicotine just as if they were smoking or chewing tobacco, and that’s changing their brains, which has got to be a bad thing,” said Dr Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco, and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research. Glantz was not involved with the report.

Human Rights Watch said the children they interviewed usually began work at age 13, with their parents and older siblings, usually not on family-owned farms. The children were mostly Hispanic immigrants, though usually US citizens.

The rules for children working in agriculture are different from those working in other industries, which means that with parental permission, a child as young as 12 can work for unlimited hours outside of school on a tobacco farm. Children under 12 can work on small farms owned by family members. In other industries, only children 14 and older can work, and there are limits placed on those aged 14 and 15.

Human Rights Watch said that no child under age 18 should be working a job where they come into contact with tobacco, and urged the US government and tobacco manufacturing companies to keep children out of tobacco farms.

The US Department of Labor withdrew proposed regulations that would have updated the prohibited list of occupations for children under 16, including tobacco. There are also no state labor laws offering additional protections to child agriculture workers in each of the four states surveyed.

"The tobacco industry and tobacco farm lobby remain influential in the US, even today,” said Clifford Douglas, the director of the University of Michigan's Tobacco Research Network and a professor at the university's school of public health. “Not like it once was, but any legislation that threatens their bottom line, without regard to public health concerns, faces a tough road.”

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."

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