CLC Press Release: 47 Members of Congress Ask President Obama to Ban Child Labor in US Tobacco before He Leaves Office

For immediate release: October 18, 2016

Contact: Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition, (202) 207-2820,

Washington, DC—

Nearly 50 members of Congress asked President Obama to ban child labor in US tobacco fields in a letter sent to the White House today. US child labor law allows children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours in tobacco fields as long as they are not missing school. “Voluntary policies among tobacco companies have attempted to get children under 16 out of the fields, but it isn’t clear those policies are effective or why they permit 16- and 17-year-old children to do work that is hazardous and makes them ill,” said Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition and the executive director of the National Consumers League.

“We believe that this work is too dangerous for workers under 18,” added Greenberg. “Children working in tobacco fields suffer regular bouts of nicotine poisoning, otherwise known as Green Tobacco Sickness. They are also subjected to dangerous pesticide residues and use razor-sharp tools. We believe tobacco work should be conducted by adults who are better able to deal with the risks, and kids who have to work or who want to work should be re-directed into safer jobs.”

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) authored the letter which asks the president to designate tobacco work for children as “hazardous child labor” and by doing so, render it illegal. Cicilline has been a persistent advocate of protecting US child tobacco workers since a Human Rights Watch report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children—Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming,” found that nearly three out of four child tobacco workers interviewed suffered symptoms that correlated with nicotine poisoning. “Laws that allow children to risk nicotine exposure while working in tobacco fields are hopelessly out of date and put children’s health in jeopardy. President Obama should act immediately to prohibit this hazardous work for children,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

In August, the Child Labor Coalition sent a letter signed by 110 groups, representing tens of millions of Americans, to President Obama urging him to ban child labor in US tobacco before he leaves office. The administration has not responded to the request.

In 2012, under strong pressure from the farm lobby, the Obama administration withdrew long-overdue occupational protections for child farmworkers that would have banned child labor in tobacco while providing several other life-saving protections. “We call on President Obama to rectify this decision and protect child tobacco workers from the dangers of nicotine poisoning before another child farmworker becomes ill at work,” said Norma Flores López, chair of the Child Labor Coalition’s Domestic Issues Committee. “Children who work in tobacco fields often wear black plastic garbage bags on their torsos to try to avoid contact with nicotine-laden tobacco leafs,” noted López. “Imagine the heat they experience in broiling sun wearing those bags? How can we subject them to those conditions?”

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have urged the Obama administration to issue federal rules to ban child labor in US tobacco.

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Rep. Cicilline and 46 Members of Congress Ask President Obama to Ban Child Labor in US Tobacco

October 18, 2016


The President

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20500


Dear Mr. President:

As you approach the final months of your term in office, we would first like to commend you on the Strides your administration has made in combatting the dangers that tobacco and nicotine products pose to children. With those accomplishments in mind, we ask that you take immediate action to amend existing rules which allow children under the age of 18 to do dangerous work on tobacco farms. The hazards to children associated with this type of labor make closing this loophole essential.

Current U.S. law allows children as young as 12, or even younger, to work as hired laborers in agriculture, and there is no special provision in law or regulation which accounts for the unique risks to children who work in tobacco fields. According to detailed reports published by Human Rights Watch in 2014 and 2015, children allowed to work on tobacco farms often work excruciatingly long hours in harsh conditions, and often without protective gear. They routinely handle tobacco plants containing nicotine, and many of these children experience symptoms such as nausea, Vomiting, and dizziness- which are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, an occupational illness that occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin. The long-term impacts on children are unknown, but research on Smoking suggests nicotine exposure during childhood and adolescence may have lasting consequences on brain development.

Because of this, it is critical that the Department of Labor issue a new rule specifically identifying labor in tobacco fields as hazardous and prohibiting children from working in direct contact with tobacco in any form. In order to avoid placing an undue burden on family farms, the rule need only apply to farms using hired laborers. Additionally, such a rule would be met with Support among many in the tobacco industry as many companies have already taken Steps to combat child labor practices. U.S. companies such as Altria Group and Reynolds American have Voluntarily prohibited their suppliers from employing children under the age of 16. These important steps made by industry should be met with strong action by the Department of Labor.

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Antonement and Action for President Obama in His Last 100 Days

Jonathan Todres

Jonathan Todres

By Jonathan Todres


This week is Yom Kippur (Sundown, October 11 to Sundown, October 12), the Day of Atonement on the Jewish calendar. As tradition has it, atoning on Yom Kippur will address only sins against God. For transgressions against other individuals, Jews are obligated to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those people first. Yom Kippur also marks the end of the High Holidays, and thus offers the prospects of a fresh start and an opportunity to do better than we did the year before.


While I’m well aware that President Obama is not Jewish (or Muslim—are people still really talking about that?), I’d like to invite him to participate, at least in spirit.  And I think the timing is appropriate, because Yom Kippur falls approximately 100 days from the end of the Obama Presidency—leaving one final window of opportunity for the president while still in the Oval Office.


On his inauguration in 2009, newly-elected President Obama boldly proclaimed that “[a]s for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Human rights advocates hailed his election and speech as the dawn of a new, promising era of progress on human rights. The past eight years haven’t necessarily lived up to expectations.


So, with little more than 100 days left in the Obama Presidency, I have two hopes. First is that he is reflecting on shortcomings (e.g., no human rights treaty was ratified while he was in office; even President George W. Bush managed to achieve ratification of two human rights treaties). Second is that he will use these final 100 days to do better.  Yes, I know he faces significant opposition in the Senate (the Senate’s failure to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was deeply disappointing). But at the risk of sounding naïve, if you aren’t willing to try to advance the ball on human rights when holding arguably the most powerful position in the world, when is the right time?


The “To Do List” for human rights is lengthy. But here are three options for President Obama that can be done within 100 days:


  1. End the federal government practice of confining migrant children in detention centers. No six-year-old who has fled violence in search of safety should be “welcomed” by being incarcerated. A recent essay by Wendy Cervantes at First Focus sheds light on this practice.


  1. Ban child labor in tobacco production. The adverse health consequences of tobacco use are well known. Less well-known is the harm inflicted on those who work in tobacco fields, particularly children. In August 2016, 110 organizations called on President Obama to protect children from “acute nicotine poisoning and other health and safety hazards faced by children working in US tobacco fields.” (click here for the letter to President Obama from the Child Labor Coalition and other organizations).


  1. 3. Send the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to the Senate. The U.S. is now the only country in the world that has not ratified the CRC. This is the closest any human rights treaty has come to universal acceptance. Since the U.S. signed the treaty in 1995, no President has taken further action. No one can prevent President Obama from forwarding the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent. Are there sufficient votes in the Senate now for ratification? Probably not. Might some Senators object? Probably.  But it’s President Obama’s decision, and sending the treaty to the Senate would be a step forward.


These three opportunities all have two important things in common: First, President Obama has the power to act on all of these. Second, all three steps would help move the United States in direction of ensuring the rights and well-being of children. It’s time for action.



Jonathan Todres is a Professor of Law, Georgia State University College of Law, who has been collaborating with the Child Labor Coalition in the Campaign for the US Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.