RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — You may have to be at least 18 to buy cigarettes in the U.S., but children as young as 7 are working long hours in fields harvesting nicotine- and pesticide-laced tobacco leaves under sometimes hazardous and sweltering conditions, according to a report released Wednesday by an international rights group.
The Human Rights Watch report details findings from interviews with more than 140 children working on farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. The group acknowledges that most of what it documented is legal under U.S. law.
“The U.S. has failed America’s families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms,” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher and co-author of the report.
Children interviewed by the group in 2012 and 2013 reported vomiting, nausea and headaches while working on tobacco farms. The symptoms they reported are consistent with nicotine poisoning often called Green Tobacco Sickness, which occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants.
According to the report, U.S. agriculture labor laws allow children to work longer hours at younger ages and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry. There’s no minimum age for children to work on small farms.
In 2011, the Labor Department proposed changes that would have prohibited children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, but they were withdrawn in 2012.
Republican Kentucky state Sen. Paul Hornback, who has worked in tobacco fields since he was 10 and now farms about 100 acres of tobacco in Shelby County, Kentucky, said while he adheres to federal regulations to keep his workers safe, he doesn’t believe further restrictions are needed. “People get pretty extreme about trying to protect everybody from everything,” Hornback said. “It’s hard manual labor, but there’s nothing wrong with hard manual labor.”