The US is the fourth largest producer of tobacco worldwide, after China, Brazil, and India. 90 percent of tobacco sold in the US comes from North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Several hundred thousand children work on US farms, and most put in 50–60 hours per week, which is legal in the US, so long as the child is in school, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). While no data is available on the number of children working specifically on tobacco farms, these farms are among the most dangerous for child workers.
“Children working in tobacco farming…may use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads, and climb several stories without protection to hang tobacco in barns,” HRW stated in a May 2014 report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming. Children also reported that tractors sprayed pesticides in nearby fields, making them vomit, feel dizzy, and have difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in their eyes.
Beyond the use of dangerous tools and exposure to toxic pesticides, children on tobacco farms may suffer from nicotine poisoning.
HRW interviewed roughly 150 children aged seven to seventeen for its report and found that 63 percent had had symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning such as nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. In December, Altria, owner of Philip Morris and other large cigarette companies, announced its producers could no longer use workers under the age of 16; however, workers aged 16 and older still risk getting sick from nicotine and pesticide exposure.
Adult tobacco farm workers in the US earn poverty-level wages and face harassment, discrimination, and grave health risks from the chemicals sprayed on tobacco plants and long hours in the heat.
None. While some smokers have turned to e-cigarettes as a lower-nicotine alternative, researchers from the University of Portland published a letter in the January issue of the New England Journal of Medicine stating that they found concentrations of carcinogenic formaldehyde in e-cigarette vapor at levels five to 15 times higher than in regular cigarettes. While more study is needed to confirm these findings, they do indicate that e-cigarettes may not be less toxic. People who live in tobacco-growing regions can make a point of supporting local organic farms to help farmers transition to a profitable, and less toxic, crop.