A Union of Labor: Tobacco Production & Unethical Labor Use

Child labor is employed by cigarette companies on their tobacco farms in an effort to ease the costs of increased governmental taxation. Labor unions and human rights organizations are asked to become more involved in stopping these violations.

girl in a hat sitting in a field

Despite increased anti-tobacco efforts over recent years, tobacco is still a massive industry. In 2011, over 293 billion cigarettes were sold in the U.S, according to the CDC. To cope with increasing taxes on cigarettes, tobacco companies must find ways to make their products cheaper to produce. Unfortunately, in modern society, workers are the first to suffer when companies cut cost. Child labor in particular is often seen as an issue tied to outsourcing. However, in the American tobacco industry, child labor is extremely prevalent.

On American tobacco farms, children as young as 12 years old can be seen working.  These children often work over twelve hours a day in extreme heat. Federal law allows anyone above the age of twelve to work on farms, and this fact makes the work a natural target for children of low income families who seek to help their parents financially. The work however, is very strenuous for anyone, let alone a child. Farm work is one of the most hazardous industries in the US, but the minimum age for hazardous work on a farm is 16, as opposed to 18 for a non-agricultural setting. Children who work on these farms face great health risks, as well as social injustices.

Like many other farm workers, the children who work on tobacco farms are subject to the extremes of heat and physical stress. If children continue working in this environment for years, joint damage is inevitable. In fact, according to Arthritis & Agriculture, one in three adult farm workers develop arthritis. In addition to the physical rigors, the use of pesticides presents a serious hazard. Tobacco cultivation requires particularly dangerous pesticides such as aldicarb, imidacloprid and chlorpyrifos, as stated in “Tobacco and the Environment”. Aldicarb is highly toxic to humans, and chlorpyrifos has been linked to genetic damage.

The children working on these farms are still undergoing physical development, which can be compromised by the pesticides they are exposed to while working on these farms.

A unique threat young tobacco workers face is the risk of Green Tobacco Sickness, or (GTS). Symptoms of GTS include vomiting, dizziness and headaches, and often mirror the symptoms of pesticide and heat exposure.

The amount of toxins tobacco workers are exposed to is a great cause for concern and it places children at extremely high risk for nicotine addiction and other issues at a very young age.

In addition to the health risks, the agricultural industry can be harsh and unfair to young workers. According to a report by CNN, workers often do not receive overtime or an adequate number of breaks during the workday. Furthermore, many children are treated harshly by farm management. Children who work the job out of necessity are forced to comply with cruel or unfair treatment. Unfortunately, many young women face sexual harassment. Children are generally unfit for any kind of large scale agricultural work, and the tobacco farm in particular is not a safe or nurturing environment for young teens.

While efforts have been announced to help put an end to child labor on tobacco farms, labor unions and human rights organizations are urged to become more involved.  In October 2014, the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina publicly declared its stance against child labor, and major tobacco corporations Altria and R.J. Reynolds have made similar statements. While this represents progress, laborunions and human rights organizations have the power to make significant changes by acting now. By working together and making a stance, child labor can be ended in the U.S.

More Information

For more motivation to quit smoking once and for all, visit The Real Cost of Smoking.

Read more about the effects cigarette smoke has on the human body at The Effects of Smoking.

Learn more about smoking:

Nicotine Dependence and Freedom

• How to Inspire a Smoker to Quit

• Secondhand Smoke: Think Twice

Quitting Smoking Cold Turkey

Published: January 28, 2015 Updated: August 26, 2019



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