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.”

It doesn’t take children long to figure out that the tobacco leaves make them ill. Many US children wear black plastic garbage bags to protect themselves from nicotine contamination. Unfortunately, this practice exposes children to the dangers of heat stroke as the black plastic absorbs the heat of the sun while children are working in tobacco fields that are already stiflingly hot.

Typically, hazardous work in the US is prohibited for minors, but US law exempts children in agriculture and allows 16- and 17-year-olds to perform hazardous work. In 2011-12, the Obama administration attempted to enact occupational protections for teen workers in agriculture, including a ban on teen work in tobacco.

Unfortunately, the administration unnecessarily delayed the rules and then tried to implement them too close to the presidential and congressional election in 2012. The rules became politicized. Farm groups claimed that the safety restrictions designed to protect teen workers from death and dismemberment would “kill the family farm” – even though the sons and daughters of family-farm owners working on their parents’ farms were exempted.

Under this pressure, the Obama administration withdrew the rules and promised to never implement them again during Obama’s tenure – a strange and disappointing pledge.

Even the tobacco industry recognizes the danger of child work in tobacco fields, with major tobacco companies implementing voluntary policies that ask US growers not hire children under 16. The advocacy community doesn’t believe the industry has the capacity to monitor these policies or that the policies go far enough. If the work is hazardous, why ask children to do it at all? As the Guardian series reveals, child labor in tobacco is rampant internationally – the US Department of Labor has identified 16 countries that use child laborers to produce tobacco.

President Trump has not weighed in on the tobacco issue, because there is no need: US law is absurdly weak. His administration, however, has signaled that it may move to endanger the health of child agricultural workers by reversing an Obama administration ban on the application of pesticides by minors. The administration is also working to remove hazardous work restrictions for students and apprentices in machine shops, wood shops, grocery stores and other businesses that would allow minors to use chainsaws, meat slicers, compactors and other dangerous machinery for longer hours than currently allowed. In short, we expect no help from the Trump administration on the tobacco issue.

In the US Congress, House and Senate bills would ban child labor on tobacco farms. Supporters understand that adults can fill the relatively small number of jobs that would be lost if a teen ban is enacted – this exact number is not known but could be in the thousands. Adults, it is believed, are somewhat less vulnerable to nicotine poisoning, better able to understand the dangers of tobacco harvesting, and more likely to adapt to those risks.

We call on the tobacco industry to raise the minimum age of work on tobacco farms to 18 in the US and around the world immediately. It’s bad enough that the tobacco industry is willing to kill its customers with a dangerous product; it really should move to protect the workers who produce that product.

Reid Maki is the coordinator for the Child Labor Coalition and director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League