The Ugly Truth of the U.S. Child Labor Behind the Tobacco Industry

A new report by Human Rights Watch called Tobacco’s Hidden Children details the appalling cost to the children who are working on U.S. tobacco farms — and how this child labor is usually perfectly legal.

About 90 percent of tobacco grown in the United States comes from four states: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Nearly all of the tobacco grown in the country ends up in the global tobacco supply chain, used by companies from America and across Europe, as well as China and Japan. Typically tobacco grown in the United States supplies cigarette brands like Marlboro, Newport, Camel and Pall Mall.

While in the United States it is illegal to buy tobacco products if you are below the age of 18, children as young as 7 have been known to work on tobacco farms (the minimum employment age is 14 or over in most other sectors) where they are regularly interacting with tobacco plants and the pesticides used to keep those plants healthy.

To investigate what life is like for children who work in tobacco farms, and indeed why they’re choosing to do this work, Human Rights Watch embarked on a data gathering mission. Between May and October 2013, Human Rights Watch interviewed 141 child tobacco workers (aged between 7-17) who worked in the states mentioned above during 2012 or 2013.

Why are Children Turning to Tobacco Picking?

Put simply: poverty. Hispanic children from immigrant families tended to make up the majority of those in the sample (though many were naturalized citizens). Their parents and siblings often also worked on the tobacco farms. These aren’t family owned farms, they’re owned by tobacco industry companies. Regardless of whether the families had other employment, the children reported working due to needing to support their families for obtaining things like clothing and items for school.

Most children interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they’d started work at 13, which again is below the usual minimum age for employment in the United States. They tended to be seasonal workers who were already living in the states where tobacco was grown. They worked on farms near their homes, usually in the summer months when tobacco is being grown and tended.

What Does Tobacco Farming Involve?

Child tobacco workers often labor 50 or 60 hours a week, which is far greater than the hours that are usually allowed for children. In addition, the work is often labor intensive and, because of the conditions tobacco needs to grow well, means working in sometimes hot and unforgiving conditions.

Just some of the jobs the children must perform include planting seedlings, weeding, applying pesticides (more on that below), harvesting tobacco leaves, using sharp knives or other dangerous wooden or metal implements to cut the plants and move them, and stripping and sorting dried tobacco leaves.

As you may have guessed, this means the children must face extended periods of time working with the tobacco plants, and sometimes working in close confines with the dried tobacco leaves. They also face working with pesticides at a young age and while the farms do give training on using pesticides and it is often said that children kept away from these more dangerous practices, the fact remains that at the very least children are exposed to crops that may be newly treated. Obviously, this could and does have an impact on the child workers’ health.

What are the Associated Health Risks?

Human Rights Watch’s interviews with child tobacco farm workers found that many of the children reported symptoms that have the hallmarks of nicotine poisoning — sadly, this isn’t surprising. Adult farm workers often have to deal with the condition due to absorbing nicotine through their skin after prolonged exposure. Given that children are still developing though, there may be added dangers.

The common symptoms of acute nicotine exposure include headaches, dizziness and vomiting. Among the children interviewed, a sizable proportion reported having suffered at least some of these symptoms. Human Rights Watch notes that there’s currently no research into the long-term effects of exposure to nicotine through contact. We do know that research shows that smoking in our teens years creates a variety of health problems, not least of which are potentially raising the odds of some cancers and impairing brain development. We cannot say that nicotine exposure through skin contact will do the same, but the very fact that the children are reporting the milder symptoms suggests that they are exposed to high enough levels of nicotine to cause problems for the body, which is a worry in itself.

Furthermore, the children also reported working in fields close to where farmers spray pesticides. As a result, they reported developing a number of pesticide exposure symptoms. In some cases, those symptoms overlap with acute nicotine exposure but some were distinct and signaled pesticide exposure, for instance burning eyes, burning noses, itchy skin, shortness of breath, redness and swelling of the mouth. The headaches that also came from these exposures lasted several days in some cases.

In addition to the health problems outlined above, children risk cuts and even serious puncture wounds as a result of using sharp implements. Climbing to dangerous heights while tending the drying tobacco which is stored in large barns is also a danger.

How Widespread is the Problem?

That’s hard to gauge, because there isn’t a wide-scale data gathering effort surrounding tobacco workers, and so the exact numbers of children (and adults) affected is unclear. What Human Rights Watch appears to be arguing is that, even if just one child is suffering under what would otherwise be illegal employment, that’s one too many.

What’s Being Done About this Child Labor Problem?

Human Rights Watch notes that few of the industry labels implicated in this report have comprehensive child labor/protection policies. While all the firms have expressed concerns about child labor in their supply chain, there appears little appetite in the industry as a whole to ban child labor, with many falling back on the US’ child labor laws which, experts say, do not necessarily cover children in these circumstances because what amounts to “light labor” and “hazardous labor” can be disputed.

The exception to this is Philip Morris International (PMI) which has a very strict code about its labor practices, and lists a specific number of activities that children working on its farms cannot do — namely, those which cause long-term exposure to mature tobacco leaves, as well as other hazardous activities.

The Human Rights Watch report concludes that children under the age of 18 should not be allowed to come into direct contact with tobacco of any form, whether that’s the plants themselves or the dried tobacco leaves. HRW is also calling for a cooperative effort between Congress, tobacco manufacturers and leaf supply companies to take urgent steps to prevent young children from engaging in hazardous work on tobacco farms.

Take Action: Please sign this Care2 petition and add your voice to the thousands calling on President Obama to make ending dangerous child labor in tobacco fields history.


Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

Tobacco should have other uses besides smoking.

Loesje vB
Loesje Najoan3 years ago

Petition signed.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams3 years ago

We really ought to repair our safety net, so children can get a roof over their family's head, and enough to eat without violating child labor laws. Failing that, child labor is a lesser evil than child starvation and malnutrition.

Marc P.
Marc P3 years ago

One more thing: Unlike today's kids I did not mind making less money than the adults. I EXPECTED it and was just happy to have the work and be included. Today's child thinks they are entitled to enter the workforce with no experience, no skills, and no work ethic, and immediately make $20.00 per hour. And manual labor??? Forget it! Those jobs are somehow 'beneath' today's child!

Marc P.
Marc P3 years ago

Today's kids, thanks to helicopter moms, can barely wipe their own ass at 14, never mind drive a tractor! And yes, when I was a kid I got paid less than the adults. Why? I was a KID! I could not work as hard as they did and be as productive as they did. Today's parents are enablers. And the worst thing they do is allow and enable their kids to do is BE HELPLESS and non productive.

Marc P.
Marc P3 years ago

Liliana G. You state "Building character and exploitation are two different things. These kids are being exploited. A family farm where each has a job and it is age appropriate is a whole different setting. Seeing this as a normal activity is a sign of what the capitalistic mode of production has done to people's ideology and how immune people have become in the USA to the developmental needs of young human beings." I say "Really"??? What this country has FORGOTTEN regarding "the developmental needs of young human beings." is that teaching and expecting INDEPENDENCE is a thing of the past. Kids have worked tobacco farms on their school vacations for over a hundered years. When I grew up picking in the 1970's my parents expected that it would be a great life experience that would usher me into adulthood and allow me to exercise fully the INDEPENDENCE they had been instilling into me all of my life! (As opposed to todays parent who infantilize their children well into adulthood.) And it WORKED! And because of that, at 14 years old I did not NEED my mommy to rescue me from every misfortune no matter how small. I did NOT need to run to mommy every time I had a booboo. I carried a knife. I drove a tractor and earned enough money to buy a bicycle, and then a car. During tobbacco off season I worked on a farm milking cows and shovelling shit. Worked in the fields haying, harvesting and anything else that was needed. Today's kids, thanks to helicopter moms, can barely

Ron C.
Ron C3 years ago

I always thought all youth should be forced to pick tobacco..there are so many was the toughest job I ever had when I left home at 15 to pick the first time...and I did not feel was an opportunity..I got paid $20 per day..the best money I could make anywhere at the is a very good test of one's character..many didnt last very long...something many posters dont realize is that a poor family is in it together and the kids dont mind helping out in any way they can...and it is a very different attitude than that in more well off families.

Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Very sad. :0(

Sylvie NoStarPlz
sylvie C3 years ago


Barbara S.
Barbara S.3 years ago

ALL children need to be in schools, not working on tobacco farms! Undocumented children (which many don't care about) are just as important to the future as are the children of the rich. They are going to be the ones who take our tomorrows forward when we're too old to work or no longer alive. We need to give these children a chance to be educated, profitable Americans.