Durbin And Cicilline: Tobacco Farms Are No Place For Kids

Senator Durbin and Representative Cicilline introduce legislation to protect children from the dangers of tobacco farming

[WASHINGTON, DC] – With the tobacco growing season beginning this month and as hundreds of children head to work on tobacco farms, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced legislation today to protect child workers from the dangers of exposure to tobacco plants, which can include acute nicotine poisoning and other long term health effects.

The U.S. currently has no specific restrictions to protect children from nicotine poisoning or other health risks associated with tobacco farming. The Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act amends the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit children under the age of 18 from coming into direct contact with tobacco plants or dried tobacco leaves. Cicilline introduced similar legislation during the last Congress. Today’s legislation is introduced following a report published by Human Rights Watch last year, Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming, which documented the hazardous conditions for children working on tobacco farms.

“We have known for decades that tobacco companies have no qualms peddling their deadly product to young people, but Big Tobacco’s willingness to exploit children for profit doesn’t stop there,” Durbin said. “Child tobacco workers – some as young as eleven or twelve – risk nicotine poisoning and other health effects every day they go to work. That needs to change.”

“It’s unconscionable that American children as young as 12 years old are being exposed to deadly carcinogens and toxins when they go to work on a tobacco farm,” added Cicilline. “Voluntary industry standards do not go far enough – there is a clear need for legal prohibitions that will protect children from the dangers of tobacco and nicotine.”

“Children shouldn’t face nicotine exposure and toxic pesticides on the job. This bill is a significant step towards ending hazardous child labor in US tobacco farming,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. “Our research found that three-quarters of child tobacco workers get sick from their work. To protect children’s health, Congress should amend US law to prohibit child labor in US tobacco farming.”

Although U.S. law prohibits children under the age of 18 from buying cigarettes, children as young as 12 are permitted to work in tobacco fields, where nicotine absorbed through the skin while handling tobacco plants can lead to nicotine poisoning. Tobacco companies and growers’ associations in the U.S. recently adopted voluntary standards to limit child labor in tobacco work.  This bill would codify this implicit agreement that a tobacco farm is no place for children to work.

For a report published by Human Rights Watch last year, researchers interviewed 140 children who worked on U.S. tobacco farms in 2012 and 2013. Key findings from the report include:

  • Child tobacco workers began working at age 11 or 12, working 50-60 hours per week. 
  • Children worked in hot conditions with jobs ranging from harvesting tobacco plants to applying toxic pesticides.
  • Children experienced nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, and sleeplessness while working on tobacco farms.
  • Children are directly exposed to those pesticides from spraying fields. Many pesticides used in tobacco production are known neurotoxins. Long-term effects include cancer, neurological deficits, and reproductive health problems. 

The Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act is supported by more than fifty organizations, including Human Rights Watch. A full list is available here.