Child Labor Coalition Press Release: 110 groups urge President Obama to enact an immediate ban on child labor in U.S. tobacco

For immediate release: August 3, 2016
Contact: Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition, (202) 207-2820,

Washington, DC—A letter signed by 110 groups, representing tens of millions of Americans, is urging President Obama to protect the most vulnerable workers in America by banning child labor in U.S. tobacco before he leaves office. “Children should not be harvesting a crop that routinely makes them sick from nicotine poisoning,” said Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and the executive director of the National Consumers League. “In 2012, under strong pressure from the agriculture lobby, the Obama administration withdrew long-overdue occupational protections for child farmworkers that would have banned child labor in tobacco while providing a host of life-saving protections. We call on President Obama to rectify this decision and at last protect child tobacco workers from the dangers of nicotine poisoning.”

Consistent with our efforts, on May 5, the Federal Drug Administration announced new regulations prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to children. In announcing the new regulations, the Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell stated, ‘We’ve agreed for many years that nicotine does not belong in the hands of children.” Despite this concern, the Obama Administration has not yet taken appropriate steps to protect child tobacco workers from nicotine poisoning in the fields.

“If Brazil and India can ban child tobacco work, the U.S. can too,” said Norma Flores López, chair of the CLC’s Domestic Issues Committee. “We call on the Obama Administration to take action on behalf of powerless child tobacco workers because it is the right thing to do. Weak child labor laws in U.S. agriculture make protecting child tobacco workers especially critical.”

 “A 12-year old can work 50 or 60 hours a week on a U.S. tobacco farm – as long as it’s not during school hours – and it’s perfectly legal,” said Jo Becker, Children’s Rights Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, which produced the ground-breaking study Tobacco’s Hidden Children –Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming in May 2014. “Before the end of his term, President Obama should take action to ban this hazardous work for children.” 

“The health reasons for such a child-labor ban are incontrovertible,” said Karen Mountain, RN and chief executive officer of Migrant Clinicians Network. “In U.S. tobacco fields, workers of any age are susceptible to green tobacco sickness, an acute nicotine poisoning from handling tobacco plants, which results in vomiting, nausea, headaches, and dizziness. Children may be even more susceptible to green tobacco sickness, due to their smaller body size.” Long-term effects of this type of nicotine exposure are unclear, although smoking tobacco during adolescence is well known to cause numerous adverse long-term health effects including cancer, noted Mountain. 

“Children performing hazardous work in U.S. tobacco fields are a particular concern,” said Dr. Lorretta Johnson, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, co-chair of the CLC. By allowing children to do this dangerous work at ages as young as 12, “the U.S. is in violation of U.N. Convention 182, which seeks to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The President can act to protect these children by closing the door to dangerous work. We want to help children succeed in school, not make them sick from nicotine poisoning and exhausted from back-breaking labor in tobacco fields.” 

Over the last two years, the tobacco industry has adopted stronger polities to address child labor concerns. The two largest tobacco-growing associations, as well as the two largest U.S.-based tobacco companies, including Philip Morris International, have stated that they would welcome stronger regulations to back up their voluntary policies. Many in the non-profit community doubt the capacity of the industry to monitor its fields.

The NGO tobacco sign-on letter asks the Obama administration to collect better data on the prevalence of child labor and to conduct targeted enforcement of labor practices to make sure current law is not being broken and both child and adult workers receive the labor protections they are due.

“The tobacco industry itself recognizes the potential harm to children working tobacco so we don’t believe a ban would elicit a strong backlash from the agricultural community,” said Reid Maki, NCL’s director of child labor advocacy. “A 12-year-old can’t smoke, the public understands that a minors should not be absorbing nicotine and getting poisoned while harvesting a crop that has killed millions of Americans.”


About the Child Labor Coalition

The Child Labor Coalition, which has 37 member organizations, represents consumers, labor unions, educators, human rights and labor rights groups, child advocacy groups, and religious and women’s groups. It was established in 1989, and is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. Its mission is to protect working youth and to promote legislation, programs, and initiatives to end child labor exploitation in the United States and abroad. The CLC’s website and membership list can be found at



110 Groups Urge President Obama to Ban Child Labor in US Tobacco

August 3, 2016

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

In August 2014, dozens of organizations counting millions of Americans among their members wrote to you, alarmed at reports of acute nicotine poisoning and other health and safety hazards faced by children working in US tobacco fields. We are writing again regarding measures you should take to protect these vulnerable children before you leave office in January 2017.

On May 5, the FDA announced new regulations prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to children under the age of 18. In announcing the new regulations, the Secretary of Health and Human Services stated, “We’ve agreed for many years that nicotine does not belong in the hands of children.” We agree. Yet US law allows children as young as 12, and in some cases even younger, to work in direct contact with tobacco in US tobacco fields and curing barns. There are no regulations or special provisions in place to protect child tobacco workers from exposure to nicotine and awareness raising efforts have limited effect given that the extreme poverty many tobacco farming families experience is the principle reason these children work in the tobacco fields at all.

201512_crd_us_tobacco_photo_2The health risks tobacco farm workers face are considerable, leaving workers vulnerable to heat stroke and green tobacco sickness. The majority of these workers are seasonal/migrant workers who have little access to mechanisms that would hold growers accountable for conditions in the fields, and often few options but to bring children to work. The health consequences of tobacco work are worse for children than they are for adults, because children’s smaller bodies absorb proportionately more nicotine than adults. There are long-term developmental repercussions as well. Children who work in direct contact with tobacco leaves risk acute nicotine poisoning, and may experience symptoms including vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness. A widely-reported 2014 study by Human Rights Watch found that the majority of the 141 child tobacco workers interviewed had experienced the sudden onset of symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning while working in fields of tobacco plants and curing barns in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

Public health research has found that non-smoking adult tobacco workers have similar levels of nicotine in their bodies as smokers in the general population. Although the long-term effects of nicotine absorption through the skin have not been studied, research on smoking finds that nicotine exposure during adolescence has been associated with mood disorders and problems with memory, attention, impulse control, and cognition later in life.

In the last two years, both U.S. tobacco growers’ associations and major companies in the tobacco industry have made some progress in acknowledging that children should not be working on tobacco farms. The Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina and the Council for Burley Tobacco, which collectively represent approximately half of all US tobacco growers, have adopted policies stating that children under age 16 should not be hired to work on tobacco farms. The two largest US-based tobacco companies, Altria Group and Reynolds American, now prohibit their suppliers from employing children under the age of 16. Companies including Philip Morris International have publicly called for US regulatory action to back up these voluntary commitments.

The safety and health of child tobacco workers is just as important as teens who may be tempted by e-cigarettes. We urge you to take immediate action to protect these vulnerable children, through the following:

1) Immediate regulations to ban children from working in direct contact with tobacco: A critical first step the administration can take to protect child tobacco workers is for the Department of Labor (DOL) to issue a hazardous occupation order that specifically prohibits children from working in direct contact with tobacco. In 2011 the DOL issued proposed regulations to update the list of tasks too dangerous for children under age 16 employed in agriculture, including “all work in tobacco production and curing, including, but not limited to such activities as planting, cultivating, topping, harvesting, baling, barning, and curing.” Intense opposition to the regulations mischaracterized them as applying to family farms and focused on specific elements, including the use of tractors and certain tools. In 2012, the administration withdrew the proposed regulations.

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Len Morris: Our Kids Are Watching Us

For the first time in more than a year, Democrats and Republicans have begun to speak mistily about the prospects for our children’s future.

“With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. Kids look to us to determine who and what they can be.”       –Michelle Obama

Words alone don’t matter. What actions can the Congress and President take immediately to improve the lives of American children?

Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on health hazards of children working in the American Tobacco Industry. Voluntary policies to eliminate child labor in tobacco are insufficient and carry no force of law. The Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act (S.974/H.R.1848) should be passed by Congress and signed into law. The medical evidence is overwhelming; children have no business handling tobacco. This bill should take five minutes to pass, about the same amount of time it takes to read. Pass this Bill now, in the lame duck Congressional session in September.

CLC-member Len Morris of Media Voices for Children

CLC-member Len Morris of Media Voices for Children

If we’re going to protect children in the fields who pick tobacco, why not protect all children who work in American agriculture whose lives and educations are put on hold and whose health is compromised by 12-hour days of work in one of the most dangerous occupations in the country? The Children’s Care Act for Responsible Employment (HR2764) has had the support of over a hundred national organizations and dozens of House members but has failed to find a single United States Senator willing to champion them by sponsoring legislation in the Senate. And so every day, in every state of our union, hundreds of thousands of children pick our fruits and vegetables, exposed to pesticides. With a 60% drop-out rate from school, they are utterly poor and equally vulnerable… a target for human traffickers.

After 80 years of delay, it’s long past time for the Congress and President to amend the 1939 law that ended child labor in America. Adults should work in the fields and make a living wage; children belong in school. It’s time for The Care Act to be sponsored in the Senate so this legislation has an opportunity to pass. Why wait – what’s to be gained by more delay? Do this in September.


Over 65,000 young people, who were brought as children to this country by their parents in search of a better life, live each year in the shadow of deportation and are unable enroll in school, find work or pursue normal lives. For years, Congress has failed to pass multiple versions of The Dream Act, a bipartisan supported Bill that would enable Dreamers to qualify to remain in America, live and work and contribute to America, including service in our military. This bill is not an amnesty, it’s a pathway to legitimacy for young adults guilty only of being brought here as children.

While Congress talks itself to death, America loses out on the economic potential of some of our brightest children. One UCLA report found that Dreamers would add between 1.4 to 3.6 trillion dollars to the American economy during their work lives. The Congressional Budget Office sees the national deficit reduced by 1.4 billion dollars as the Bill reduces and focuses the costs of border security to those individuals who constitute a real and violent threat to our society. But mostly, The Dream Act is a simple test of American values. Can we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes? Can we find the empathy we need to make room at our table for children, who are in fact our schoolmates, our neighbors, our soldiers? Now is the time to pass the Dream Act because it’s the right thing to do for those children but for also ourselves, as an expression of our own humanity.

“We don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed, because we always know there is someone who is worse off and there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

                                        –Michelle Obama

Children’s rights are human rights and human rights are children’s rights, that’s the point of the 1995 treaty, The Convention on the Rights of the Child. Every nation on earth, except the United States, has adopted the Convention, a landmark document of utter simplicity that sets out the kind of world we should all aspire to for all children. While President Clinton signed the Treaty in 1995, no American President has ever submitted it to the United States Senate for its required “advise and consent”. Over the years, objections to the Convention came from those upset that it prohibits either juvenile execution or life sentences, positions upheld by The United States Supreme Court. Home-school advocates have objected to the Convention’s requirement for mandatory public education. But the actual issue preventing adoption has always been American exceptionalism, the feeling that we shouldn’t agree to any treaty binding our behavior on the global stage.

President Obama, here is an easy addition to your legacy. Send this Convention on to the Senate and make a strong statement about children’s human rights. By doing the right thing, you’d re-energize the debate about the welfare of children around the world and at home. You’d set an example and force the Senate to look into its heart. With Somalia’s ratification last year, America has the distinction of being the ONLY country to not ratify The Convention on the Rights of the Child…. and what a distinction that is… to sit on the sidelines and pretend we care about values we’re unwilling to adopt and publicly support. If we mean what we say about championing children interests, then adopting the CRC is the right thing to do.

President Obama, don’t leave office without sending this Treaty on to the Senate. Do it now.Children sickened by tobacco, children working illegally in America’s fields, children whose lives are on hold and live threatened by deportation, a world where the value and rights of children are ignored by the greatest democracy on earth. Is this the world we want for our children?

“Words and actions matter… With every word we utter and every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. “Michelle Obama

Len Morris of Media Voices for Children received the Iqbal Masih Award from the Department of Labor in 2012 for his work to end the worst forms of child labor.

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