Why Are 12-Year-Olds Working in US Tobacco Fields?

Yesenia Cuello started working in tobacco fields in North Carolina at age 12, along with her two sisters, ages 10 and 11. They wanted to help their mother, a single parent, pay her bills.

“The first day was sunup to sundown,” Yesenia told Ariel Ramchandani, a journalist writing for The Atlantic. When they saw how hard the work was for their mom, they felt compelled to return to work.

“We did realize that is was really hard and she was there without us,” said Yesenia. After eight years away from the tobacco fields, her back still gives her trouble because of those long days bending over and standing on hard, uneven ground.

Fourteen-year-old Luis also works 12-hour days in the tobacco fields of North Carolina, starting his day at 5 a.m. before a van picks him up, and often not returning until 7 p.m.

There are thousands of child laborers like Yesenia and Luis in the U.S.

The minimum age to buy cigarettes is 18, and five states — California, New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine — have raised that age to 21, recognizing the dangers of smoking. So have some 320 localities across the country, including New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis and Boston. 

So how is it possible that children as young as 12 are working in tobacco fields?

Child Labor

Chalk it up to the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938 – a seminal law that created the right to a minimum wage, as well as “time-and-a-half” overtime pay for people working more than 40 hours a week. But even though the law prohibited “oppressive child labor,” neither agriculture nor the child labor associated with it were included in its extensive worker protections.

This means that while child labor is strictly regulated in most industries — children must be 14 to 16 years old and can only perform certain tasks — such protections do not exist when it comes to farms. Smaller farms can hire children of any age, and on larger farms, children may work for hire beginning at age 12 if they have parental permission.

This is an appalling situation — and one that needs to change.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 140 child tobacco workers and published their findings in a 2014 report. The organization discovered that almost all the young people suffered symptoms of “green tobacco sickness,” or nicotine poisoning.

As The Guardian details:

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.

Today tobacco picking is mostly performed by machines, but everything else is done by hand. Workers have to quickly move along each row of tobacco plants, removing buds and flowers, taking off unwanted shoots and bending over to pull out any weeds, as they go.

A Serious Public Health Issue

These young laborers are constantly inhaling nicotine and also wrecking their bodies with all that bending and standing. Then there’s heat sickness — temperatures can reach 89º F in the summer — and the possibility of injuries from sharp objects.

And in the Trump, era, attempts by Scott Pruitt to eliminate EPA restrictions on lethal agrochemicals pose a whole host of other dangers to farmworkers. 

When we know that smoking tobacco kills 6 to 7 million people a year, why do we allow our children to work in tobacco fields? We must protect young people like Yesenia and Luis.

The U.S. government should put strict regulations in place and legislate to protect tobacco workers from harm. Tobacco companies must be prohibited from allowing children to come in contact with tobacco and put in place regular human rights monitoring for all their workers.

We owe this to our children, whose health and well-being hang in the balance.

Take Action!

If you agree, please sign this Care2 petition calling on our government to pass legislation prohibiting tobacco companies from employing children in tobacco fields.

Creating a Care2 petition is easy. If you have an issue you care deeply about, why not start your own petition? Here are some guidelines to help you get started and soon the Care2 community will be signing up to support you.


Photo Credit: Mangrove Mike/Flickr


Marie W
Marie W2 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Will Rogers
Will Rogers7 months ago

Bah humbug! When I was kid we worked 17 hour days down pit, dragging ore like packhorses and it never did me any harm! Okay I got bad knees and shoulders and back and I’m not really good with light and of course I got black lung but other than I’m perfectly fine! I don’t mean to be facetious, well I do..why is this happening in a so called first world country? America needs sanctions put on it for its continual human rights abuses. But they are so violent that everywhere is scared of them.

Dave fleming
Past Member 8 months ago


Marija M
Marija M8 months ago


Joan E
Joan E8 months ago


Ruth S
Ruth S8 months ago

Hard to believe in this day and age. Children helping on the family farms is normally accepted, but NOT to this extreme!

Naomi D
Naomi Dreyer8 months ago

Children helping earn money for family is praisworthy even if I don't like child labor.

Naomi D
Naomi Dreyer8 months ago

Why are there tobacco fields?

Latoya B
Latoya Brookins8 months ago

Why are there tobacco fields?

Cindy S
Cindy Smith8 months ago