National Consumers League

NCL applauds Congress for steps to remove children from hazardous tobacco farming

September 17, 2014

Contact: NCL Communications, Ben Klein (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), the nation’s pioneering consumer advocacy organization, applauds members of Congress who have recently taken action to end the scourge of children working in hazardous tobacco fields. Last week, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) began circulating a sign-on letter to House members asking the Department of Labor to take narrowly-focused regulatory action to protect children from dangerous tobacco fields, where child farmworkers regularly suffer nicotine poisoning, toxic pesticide exposure, and work at dangerous heights.

“They can’t legally purchase cigarettes, but we permit these children to work in tobacco fields and suffer acute nicotine poisoning,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of NCL and co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which NCL helped found 25 years ago. “We urge Congress to take immediate action to protect America’s most vulnerable workers—children in tobacco fields.”

The concern about children working on tobacco farms is growing. In May, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the dangers in a report, Tobacco's Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, finding that of 141 child tobacco workers interviewed in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, three-quarters reported falling ill. Many of their symptoms—nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, and dizziness—are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning (also known as “Green Tobacco Sickness”).  Exemptions to U.S. child labor law allow children as young as 12—and in some cases even younger—to work long hours in tobacco fields.

“These children are among the nation’s most vulnerable, and we must do more to protect them,” said Rep. Cartwright in his “Dear Colleague” letter to fellow Members.

A bill, HR 5327, introduced by Rep. Cicilline this summer, would classify tobacco as “hazardous oppressive labor”, allowing the U.S. Department of Labor to ban it for those under 18. "It seems to me that exposing young people to those kinds of dangers is something we should prevent," Cicilline said in an interview.

Also this summer, 17 senators sent a letter to several large tobacco companies asking them to voluntarily ban children from their fields.

The Kentucky-based Council on Burley Tobacco has also taken a public stand on this issue: "We do not condone the hiring of anyone under the age of 16 for work in tobacco anywhere in the world."

In July, 53 groups signed onto a Child Labor Coalition letter urging the largest tobacco corporations to take voluntary action to ban children from tobacco fields. Last month, in another CLC letter, 50 organizations wrote to President Obama to urge greater protections for child tobacco workers.

“In America today, children who harvest tobacco must protect themselves from nicotine and pesticide residues by wearing plastic garbage bags with holes punched in them for their arms and heads. They are standing in drying barns at heights of 20 feet or more on unbelievably narrow rafters,” said Reid Maki, NCL’s director of child labor advocacy and the coordinator of the CLC. “Exposing children to deplorable working conditions is not in keeping with American values—we are so much better than this as a nation. We applaud Congress for taking steps to protect these vulnerable child workers.”


About the National Consumers League
The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America's pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit