Smokeless tobacco products, such as electronic cigarettes, are under scrutiny because nicotine can pose health risks. According to an article in the New York Times there was an increase in the number of high school students using e-cigarettes. This is of concern since nicotine can harm the developing adolescent brain and cause lasting cognitive damage. Ask any child harvesting tobacco, whether tobacco has an impact without smoking. Due to a 1938 exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act, children 12 and sometimes younger work in agriculture.
The Human Rights Watch report Tobacco’s Hidden Children highlights nicotine poisoning in children working in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. The children work long hours, in extreme heat and report vomiting, nauseas, headaches, and dizziness. Given the toxicity, one might think that the pay is great – not so. The median annual income of crop workers ranges from $16,000- 18,000. In 2012 the total value of tobacco leaf production was $1.5 billion, so the industry clearly doesn’t have to survive off the backs of children. Some tobacco companies have agreed to update their policy not to hire any child under 16. Can we cry victory, or do we still need a law to enforce this? Some farmers outsource hiring to contractors, age verification isn’t required in agriculture, and some children are groomed to lie about their age. Another consideration is that the tobacco industry is a for-profit industry. Philip Morris sued Uruguay for $25 million over graphic cigarette packaging of their products meant to discourage consumers due to the known health risks. So yes, we still need a legal remedy.
In February 2015, efforts to pass legislation in Virginia failed, with some politicians openly opposing the change. District Del. Daniel Marshall III said “My grandmother raised tobacco, I grew up in a tobacco family…My whole life I had been exposed to tobacco.” But this is a bit disingenuous. The son of a farm owner is not the target of this type of legislation, and there is clearly a difference between being around tobacco and actually harvesting tobacco for long hours. Other Virginia house members argued against the legislation, like Del. Johnny Joannou who said he grew up doing this sort of work and asked “Our parents were stupid?” Later it was discovered that Joannou didn’t work on a farm as a child, but washed dishes and did other work in a family restaurant. Were some of these arguments based on flawed reasoning, due to a lack of understanding, or were they deliberately misleading in an effort to avoid regulations?
Despite this setback, Senator Durbin and Representative David Cicilline have introduced a bill to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to require any employment in which children under the age of 18 come into direct contact with tobacco plants or dried tobacco leaves to be considered particularly hazardous oppressive child labor, which is prohibited under such Act. Will they have success for something as obvious as protecting children from the known risks of nicotine poisoning?
The international community will be watching. On May 11th, 2015 the U.S. was reviewed for its human rights record during the Universal Periodic Review. One very clear and unambiguous recommendation was from Belgium: “Remove the agriculture exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which would raise the age for harvesting and hazardous work for hired children, taking care to distinguish between farm owner and farm worker children.” Meanwhile, if you’re looking for another reason to stop smoking, think about the children.
Julia Perez is an electrical engineer and advocate for child laborers in U.S. agriculture which led her to serve as Associate Director of The Harvest/La Cosecha documentary. Julia is currently finishing a short story collection related to child labor themes.