US children working in domestic tobacco fields regularly suffer from breathing problems, nausea and other ailments, an international rights group said in a report yesterday, urging the industry to develop tougher protections for its youngest workers.
Human Rights Watch, which documented working conditions for children in four US states, said it found many children on tobacco farms were in direct contact with the plant’s leaves, leading to serious ailments consistent with nicotine poisoning.
“I didn’t feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up,” said one 16-year-old worker, who worked pulling tops off of tobacco plants to help increase yields, according to Human Rights Watch, which interviewed 141 youths aged between seven and 17 working on tobacco farms in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The group notified 10 tobacco companies of its findings, including Altria Group Inc, Lorillard Inc, Philip Morris International Inc and Reynolds American Inc, urging them to boycott tobacco from farms that do not have policies in place to protect workers younger than 18.
It also contacted other cigarette makers, as well as two tobacco leaf merchant companies, Alliance One International and Universal Corp.
“We want them to put strong child labor provisions into these contracts saying: ‘We won’t buy your tobacco unless you can assure us that you’re not using hazardous child labor,’” Jo Becker, the group’s top advocate for youth issues, told reporters.
The group said Philip Morris was already developing specific protections.
The company, which makes the popular Marlboro cigarette, said it was open to industry standards.
“Clearly there is opportunity to align,” Miguel Coleta, its director of external labor policies, told reporters.
Other companies said they were developing child labor policies or reviewing the report.
Still, no company explicitly prohibits those under the age of 18 from having contact with tobacco, Human Rights Watch said.
US Senator Tom Harkin, the chairman of the US Senate’s panel on health and labor issues, said in a statement that none of the companies’ policies were sufficient and that he would contact them in coming days.
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