Casey, 16 Other Senators Urge Largest Tobacco Companies to Prohibit Child Labor in the Supply Chain

Letter Follows the Release of a National Report Showing Children Experience Sudden, Serious Health Ailments While Working in Tobacco Fields, Curing Barns

Casey, 16 Other Senators Urge Largest Tobacco Companies to Prohibit Child Labor in the Supply Chain

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, sent a letter with 16 other senators to the ten largest tobacco companies urging them to prohibit child labor in their supply chain.  The letter comes on the heels of a new report by Human Rights Watch which found that nearly three-quarters of the child tobacco workers in the four largest tobacco-producing states had experienced the sudden onset of serious symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, skin rashes, and irritation to their eyes and mouths; while working on tobacco fields and in curing barns.  Many of these symptoms are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. 

“It is beyond reproach that the major American tobacco companies are exposing children to these harsh working conditions,” Senator Casey said. “Employees under the age of 18 should not be subject to long-term health risks at their workplace under any circumstance. I urge these companies to take this matter seriously and address our concerns without delay.”

In the letter, the lawmakers urged the companies to develop company policies and industry-wide standards that would include the following:

  • A prohibition on child labor anywhere in the tobacco supply chain, including any work in which children under age 18 come in direct contact with tobacco plants or dried tobacco leaves, including in countries where national laws provide lesser protections;
  • Provisions in all contracts with growers and suppliers that child labor is prohibited, including work by children under age 18 that brings them in direct contact with tobacco;
  • Provisions stipulating qualified third-party monitors to conduct regular inspections of suppliers during peak season when children are most likely to work, and ensure that their reports are made public.”
  • Support for programs to prevent child labor in tobacco, including programs to support educational, recreational, and alternative skills building and vocational opportunities.

Noting that other major tobacco-producing countries, including India and Brazil, prohibit children under age 18 from working in tobacco, the Senators wrote, “We urge you, as the world’s leading tobacco companies and tobacco leaf merchants, to take the steps outlined above to ensure that all children are protected from nicotine poisoning and other health hazards in tobacco production.” 

Along with Senator Casey, the letter was signed by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).  It was sent to executives at Altria Group, Inc., British American Tobacco PLC, China National Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group PLC, Japan Tobacco Inc., Lorillard, Inc., Philip Morris International Inc., Reynolds American Inc., Alliance One International, Inc., and Universal Corporation.  

The text of the letter can be found below:

Dear Sirs and Madam:

We are deeply concerned about the dangers of nicotine exposure to children who work on U.S. tobacco farms, as well as other health and safety risks posed to child tobacco workers. We write to urge your companies to adopt company policies and industry-wide standards to prevent children under age 18 from working in direct contact with tobacco and to ensure that these standards apply throughout your supply chain.

A new study released by Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with 141 child tobacco workers in the four largest tobacco-producing states (North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee), found that nearly three-quarters of the child tobacco workers they interviewed had experienced the sudden onset of serious symptoms—including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, skin rashes, and irritation to their eyes and mouths —while working in fields of tobacco plants and in curing barns. Many of these symptoms are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.

As you know, acute nicotine poisoning, known as Green Tobacco Sickness, is an occupational health risk specific to tobacco farming that occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin from prolonged contact with tobacco plants. Public health research has found that non-smoking adult tobacco workers have similar levels of nicotine in their bodies as smokers in the general population. Occupational exposure can be dangerous for adult workers, but even more dangerous for children whose bodies are still developing and are even more vulnerable to exposure. Studies highlighted by a 2014 report from the Surgeon General found that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have long-term adverse consequences for brain development.

While protective equipment such as rain suits may limit nicotine exposure, they are not a practical solution for children, as they carry other unacceptable risks, including heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses from working in the high temperatures that are typical during the tobacco season in the United States.

Human Rights Watch found children as young as 7 working in U.S. tobacco fields, and children of ages 11 and 12 working 10-12 hours per day or more. These children described working in extreme heat, using sharp tools and heavy machinery, and working at heights of more than one story in curing barns. More than half of the children interviewed reported being exposed to toxic pesticides. Public health experts have noted that several pesticides commonly used during tobacco farming are known neurotoxins, which can cause cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems.

We urge your companies to develop company policies and industry-wide standards that would include the following:

  • a prohibition on child labor anywhere in the tobacco supply chain, including any work in which children under age 18 come in direct contact with tobacco plants or dried tobacco leaves, including in countries where national laws provide lesser protections;
  • provisions in all contracts with growers and suppliers that child labor is prohibited, including work by children under age 18 that brings them in direct contact with tobacco;
  • provisions stipulating qualified third-party monitors to conduct regular inspections of suppliers during peak season when children are most likely to work, and ensure that their reports are made public.”
  • support for programs to prevent child labor in tobacco, including programs to support educational, recreational, and alternative skills building and vocational opportunities.

6.7 million tons of tobacco are produced around the world each year, with the U.S. as the fourth-largest producer. Approximately 5.8 trillion cigarettes are consumed annually. These products should not be produced at the expense of children’s health. We note that other major tobacco-producing countries, including India and Brazil, prohibit children under age 18 from working in tobacco.

We urge you, as the world’s leading tobacco companies and tobacco leaf merchants, to take the steps outlined above to ensure that all children are protected from nicotine poisoning and other health hazards in tobacco production.

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