National Consumers League

President Obama should act to protect child tobacco farmworkers

I bet you knew that a 12-year-old cannot legally buy cigarettes in the US. But did you know that it’s legal in America for the same 12-year-old can work in a tobacco field for 10- to 12- hours a day in 100-degree heat and suffer repeated bouts of nicotine poisoning.

It doesn’t pass the common sense test and President Obama should do something about it. That’s the message sent to the President last Thursday in a letter by the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), a group which the National Consumers League founded 25 years ago to protect child workers from exploitative child labor and dangerous jobs. Sixteen groups, including the NAACP the League of United Latin American Citizens, Oxfam America, and Public Citizen, joined 34 CLC members to urge the White House to take immediate action.

The members of the CLC have long known the dangers of tobacco work for children, but we have a relatively new weapon in our fight to educate the public about this issue: A recent report, "Tobacco's Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming," published by Human Rights Watch found that three quarters of 141 child tobacco workers interviewed in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee-–the main tobacco-producing states—reported getting sick while working on US tobacco farms. Many of their symptoms—nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, and dizziness—are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning (also known as “Green Tobacco Sickness”). 

To make matters worse, Human Rights Watch found that three of the four states that produce 90 percent of US tobacco (Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee) have failed to take sufficient measures to enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Field Sanitation Standard. This standard requires workers to be provided with fresh drinking water, hand washing facilities, and toilets. Most of the children interviewed by HRW were not provided with hand washing facilities or toilets, and some were not given sufficient drinking water.  The absence of hand washing facilities significantly increases the risks of nicotine and pesticide exposure.

Using information from the OSHA Integrated Management Information System, HRW reports that from January 2010 to December 2013, Kentucky carried out only eight field inspections in tobacco, Tennessee carried out one field inspection, and Virginia carried out none. Only one of the four major tobacco-producing states – North Carolina – made meaningful attempts to enforce the Field Sanitation Standard, with 143 inspections during the time period, said HRW researchers.

In addition to nicotine, farmworker children may also be absorbing a range of toxic pesticides commonly used in tobacco fields. Children often wear black garbage bags to protect them from these dual exposures but you can imagine what it’s like to wear a plastic bag in the 90- and 100-degree temperatures often found in tobacco fields. And, the work is dangerous. Child tobacco workers often use sharp tools and can work in tobacco drying barns at two-, three- and four-story heights without protective equipment as they balance precariously on the top of beams that may be only one or two inches thick

Signed by 50 organizations, the letter to President Obama represents millions of Americans, including teachers, healthcare professionals, farmworkers, and advocates concerned about the safety, education, and welfare of children, and it asks the president to issue narrowly-tailored regulations to prohibit work by children in tobacco fields and calls on the Department of Labor to conduct targeted field investigations to ensure that no children under 12 are working in the fields illegally.

The letter to the president also calls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue “health hazard alerts” so that employers will know how they might mitigate risks of nicotine poisoning for their employees. And it cites the need for better data collection to allow an accurate count of the number of children who currently work in US tobacco fields and other farms.

The situation—with children as young as 12 (and HRW found about a dozen kids conducting lighter work in the fields who were under 12)—is so absurd that it proved great material for the satirists at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who produced a funny, but alarming, report called “Nicoteens.” The clip will make you laugh and allow you to hear young tobacco workers describing the work conditions in their own words.

In June, the CLC sent a letter to the top 10 tobacco companies signed by over 50 organizations, asking for voluntary action to limit tobacco work in the fields. Thus far, no concrete actions to remove children from tobacco fields have been initiated by the companies.

In 2011, the Obama Administration acted to implement regulations to protect working children from farm dangers, including tobacco work, but those rules were withdrawn because of opposition from the farm community. CLC members fought hard for those comprehensive protections, but were no match for the resources of the agricultural lobby. The wholesale withdrawal of occupational child safety regulations for farms left child workers in tobacco vulnerable to nicotine poisoning, pesticide poisoning, and other dangers. It’s time to fix this glaring consequence of the administration’s complete pullback and move forward to protect children in tobacco fields.

Readers who wish to send a quick note to the White House about this issue should go here.

A bill, HR 5327, in the House of Representatives, recently introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) would classify tobacco work as hazardous labor, allowing the USDOL to ban work by children under 16. We encourage consumers to call or write their member of Congress and ask them to cosponsor the bill. 

It’s time to stop the madness. We need your help.