Child Labor on Tobacco Farms: The Shocking Reality

Child labor on tobacco farms is an uncomfortable and shocking reality. Although policies in the U.S. have been changed to prevent anyone under 16 from working on tobacco farms, children in many other parts of the world aren’t protected.

Tobacco causes harm throughout society, affecting people in every profession and from all walks of life, having second-hand impacts on bystanders and causing often-ignored harm to the environment, but the farming of tobacco also does its own share of damage. The problem of child labor on tobacco farms is a serious one, and it’s often overlooked in many discussions of the harms of tobacco. Many tobacco companies and growers’ groups changed their policies in 2014 to prevent children under the age of 16 from working on tobacco farms, but child labor on tobacco farms is still a big problem in many parts of the world.

Child Labor on Tobacco Farms: The Size of the Problem

The Eliminating Child Labor in Tobacco Growing Foundation has commissioned several studies of child labor on tobacco farms to attempt to estimate the size of the problem. One study looked at the situation in two locations in Malawi, and found that overall, about 57% of all children were involved in activities that could be considered child labor. Among tobacco-growing families, 63% of children were involved in some form of child labor, and a later study showed that around 36% of children from tobacco-growing families were doing some tobacco-related work.

Human Rights Watch also draws attention to the situation in the U.S.. It’s technically legal to hire children as young as 12 to work on a farm outside school hours, so long as you have their parents’ permission, and this carries over to tobacco farms. In fact, decisions from RJ Reynolds and Altria to ban children under 16 from working on any of their farms – and by two growers’ groups shortly afterwards – are the biggest steps that have been taken to address the problem of child labor on tobacco farms in the U.S..

Overall, while it’s clear that child labor on tobacco farms is a big issue, it’s hard to estimate its size outside of specific locations where the issue has been studied rigorously.

The Dangers of Child Labor on Tobacco Farms: Green Tobacco Sickness

The problem with child labor on tobacco farms is that it exposes them to risk, even more so than most other farming work would. The physical labor and extreme heat associated with most farming jobs is problematic on its own, and can lead to issues such as arthritis as well as risking accidents and other injuries.

However, tobacco farming carries some unique risks. One of the most important is called “green tobacco sickness,” which is a condition that causes nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, stomach pain and fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate. It’s actually caused by the nicotine from the tobacco being absorbed through the skin (like it is when used as a nicotine patch), so these are really symptoms of nicotine poisoning.

Studies have estimated that workers get this issue on about 1 in 50 days. A study from Human Rights Watch, where youth tobacco farm workers were interviewed, showed that about three-quarters reported having symptoms of green tobacco sickness in the past. In short, the problem is very widespread and many workers experience it when working on a tobacco farm.

The Dangers of Child Labor on Tobacco Farms: Pesticide Exposure

As with many other crops, tobacco growing requires the use of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. This is particularly the case because tobacco is grown as a mono-crop. Pesticides such as imidacloprid, 1,3-dichloropropen, chlorpyrifos, aldicarb and methyl bromide are often used on tobacco crops, and although the latter two are due to be phased out, exposures to large amounts can be dangerous.

Although U.S. farm workers are more likely to be protected, in other places in the world, protective equipment is less likely to be available and environmental laws are generally less stringent. This means that in lower income countries, where most tobacco is grown and child labor is more common, child workers on tobacco farms are at greater risk.

Tackling the Problem of Child Labor on Tobacco Farms

Child labor on tobacco farms is a difficult problem to tackle, because much of it occurs in the developing world, and even that taking place in the U.S. is hard to tackle because many children help out on family farms. However, by pushing for legislation preventing the use of child labor on tobacco farms, and by ensuring that anybody (adult or child) working on tobacco farms is given protective clothing to prevent green tobacco sickness and pesticide exposure, the risks can be minimized.

Reducing the demand for tobacco by bringing down the smoking rate will also have a knock-on effect on tobacco farming. This is the real goal, and the problems with child labor on tobacco farms are yet another example of how a tobacco-free world would be a better world.