This country’s two largest tobacco companies, Altria Group and R.J. Reynolds, have announced that they will prohibit their growers from hiring workers under the age of 16. Altria will also require parental consent for children under 18 working in tobacco fields. This follows the signing of a pledge of commitment by fourteen tobacco companies around the world to “progressively eliminate all forms of child labour” within their tobacco supply chains.
The first domino to fall was Marlboro-maker Philip Morris, an Altria subsidiary, which announced in November that the company will no longer buy tobacco from third party companies, as opposed to buying directly from growers, which is expected to result in a decline in the number to child tobacco workers in the United States. As Human Rights Watch noted at the time:
This change will require the world’s largest tobacco leaf suppliers — Alliance One International and Universal Corporation — to implement Philip Morris International’s detailed child labor policy on all US farms from which they purchase tobacco. Of the world’s 10 largest tobacco companies, Philip Morris International has the most rigorous standards, prohibiting children under 18 from many of the most hazardous tasks on tobacco farms.
But as a recent New York Times editorial notes, it is still perfectly legal to employ children as young as 12 in the tobacco harvest, so new federal rules remain crucial.
In an Investigative Fund cover story for The Nation a year ago, Gabriel Thompson exposed how children as young as 12 spent their summers working in North Carolina’s humid tobacco fields, where the wet leaves excrete nicotine that is absorbed into the skin. Many suffered from acute nicotine poisoning, which can induce bouts of dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, and often requires hospitalization. Thompson reported that though the United States has spent millions of dollars to help end child tobacco labor around the world, the Obama administration, in response to pressure from the American Farm Bureau, withdrew a proposed rule by the Department of Labor that would have banned children from working in several particularly dangerous agricultural tasks, including harvesting tobacco.
Following that investigation and an Investigative Fund broadcast segment from producer Rayner Ramirez on Fusion television, Human Rights Watch released a report citing Thompson’s reporting, which sparked editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post calling for federal action. In July, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island introduced a bill in the House to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit work by children in tobacco growing. And in September, Reps. Cicilline and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania called on Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to ban child labor in US tobacco fields.