Trouble in the Tobacco Fields: Protecting America’s Children From the Dangers of Tobacco Farming

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Trying to Stand Tall in Tobacco: A teenage tobacco farm worker (Photo Credit: Marcus Beasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch; http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0514_photoSumUploadwCvr.pdf)

Trying to Stand Tall amongst Tobacco: A teenage tobacco farm worker
(Photo Credit: Marcus Beasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch; http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0514_photoSumUploadwCvr.pdf)

Every day in the United States, children are falling ill while working on tobacco farms, relying only on plastic trash bags and promises of self-regulation from the unreliable tobacco industry for protection. This is because federal regulations allow children as young as 12 to legally engage in “non-hazardous” farm work. And tobacco farming is technically considered “non-hazardous.”

Children like Ana Flores, 16, would beg to differ.

When interviewed for a New York Times feature , Ana reported dizziness and nausea while working in direct contact with tobacco, symptoms concerning for acute nicotine poisoning.

She is not alone: in 2014, the Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) comprehensive report on child labor on U.S. tobacco farms revealed that over 60% of the 141 children interviewed had similar symptoms while working in tobacco fields, suggestive of significant exposure to tobacco. More than one-half of the children also reported exposure to dangerous pesticides and others suffered serious injuries from farm equipment.

Though it regulates children’s exposure to tobacco products, the U.S. government had shown an inconsistent commitment to change its contradictory policy allowing child labor on tobacco farms.

Until now, that is.

Inspired by the HRW report, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced the “Child Free Tobacco Bill” in late 2014.

The bill seeks to redefine tobacco farming as “hazardous oppressive child labor,” thus prohibiting anyone under the age of 18 from engaging in it.

The bill died at the end of the last congressional session, but Rep. Cicilline has vowed to reintroduce it this year.

The legislation will introduce an absolutely crucial measure to protect children from harmful and unnecessary exposure to tobacco and the numerous other hazards involved in its cultivation.

After hearing the voices of children like Ana, we can no longer stay silent. Please contact your local Congressional representatives to request their support for this bill.

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2 Responses to “Trouble in the Tobacco Fields: Protecting America’s Children From the Dangers of Tobacco Farming”

  1. kmansukh Says:

    I absolutely agree with you Maya. I think it is imperative that the Child Free Tobacco Bill is passed. Its interesting how people have found a way to work around the evidence.
    Nicotine in general has a detrimental effect on adult human brain functioning along with secondary cardiovascular effects. However, when it comes to children – the degree to which it can affect brain development in prenatal, postnatal and adolescent phases of human as evidenced by Dwyer et al., 2009 – The Dynamic Effects of Nicotine on the Developing Brain (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2746456/)

    Given this evidence, I’m certain that many congressional representatives would support the bill and would serve as a good stand to take in their constituencies.

  2. bosede Says:

    This is a wonderful post. It not only points to a human rights issue, but also the need for immigration reform. Many of these children are either Hispanic immigrants or children of Hispanic immigrants. Because their parents have difficulty finding adequate work, perhaps due to undocumented status, these children have to pitch in. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/business/just-13-and-working-risky-12-hour-shifts-in-the-tobacco-fields.html?_r=0).

    (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/local/2014/09/07/kids-work-tennessees-tobacco-farms-protections/15154989/)

    President Obama’s newly proposed immigration reform will enable many of these parents to “come out of the shadows and get right with the law.” (http://www.ibtimes.com/immigration-reform-2014-obamas-executive-action-ruled-unconstitutional-federal-judge-1760397)

    If these parents can work legally–obtaining a livable wage and more job security–perhaps there will be less of a burden for their young children to become financial providers. Passing a law to protect children from working on tobacco fields will address the proximal problem but a socioecological perspective points to an even broader public health issue.

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