Viewpoint

American 12-Year-Olds Can’t Buy Cigarettes. Why Can They Work in Tobacco Fields?

[This op-ed appeared in The Guardian on June 28, 2018. You may view it there by clicking here.]

It’s no surprise that working in tobacco fields is dangerous. Smoking tobacco kills 6 to 7 million people a year, according to the World Health Organization. The same nicotine that makes tobacco so dangerous – and addictive – harms workers in tobacco fields. What is a surprise to many is that child workers are among those harmed and the United States allows 12-year-olds to work for wages in toxic tobacco fields where children are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides.

In the U.S., many teens who work in tobacco fields wear plastic garbage bags to try to avoid nicotine poisoning. [Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch]

When the seminal legislation the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, it exempted agriculture from its extensive labor protections, including child labor. Most analysts agree that racism played a part in this decision – many agricultural workers were poor black people and the southern congressional leaders who controlled many committees had little interest in protecting them from labor abuses.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), whom we partner with on the US-based Child Labor Coalition, has confirmed that tobacco work is too dangerous for teen workers. Its 2014 report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, featured the results of interviews of 140 child tobacco workers and found the majority had suffered symptoms that correlated with frequent bouts of “green tobacco sickness” – essentially nicotine poisoning.

The child laborers described nausea, dizziness, fatigue and other symptoms that left them feeling “like you’re going to die”. It’s clear that children absorb nicotine while they work from residue on tobacco leaves and from particulates in the air, but just how much is uncertain. Estimates differ from the equivalent of smoking six cigarettes a day to smoking over 30. The long-term impact of that absorption is not yet known.

In the US, a 12-year-old cannot legally walk into a store and buy cigarettes, but the law allows that same child to work in a tobacco field. A 16-year-old child tobacco worker told HRW that tobacco was “the hardest of all the crops we’ve worked in. You get tired. It takes the energy out of you. You get sick, but then you have to go right back to the tobacco the next day.”

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