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Lawmakers Push to Ban Child Labor on U.S. Tobacco Farms

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Following a year of disturbing new coverage on the dangerous health effects of working on tobacco farms, 35 House Democrats have officially requested that the Obama administration prohibit children from this hazardous form of work.

The Democratic legislators, led by Representatives David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, stated their urgent plea in a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. The Associated Press obtained the language in that letter on Tuesday.

This is not the first time we’ve seen lawmakers address the case of workplace injury and illness among minors working in tobacco fields. In 2012, the Labor Department backed away from a proposed rule that would have prohibited children under 16 from several high-risk forms of agriculture work, including work on tobacco farms. In their letter, the lawmakers are pushing for a much more targeted ban that would cover minors employed on tobacco farms only.

While the letter doesn’t stipulate an exact age limit, an aide for Cicilline said lawmakers supporting these measures would prefer the ban to apply to all legal “minors” — children under 18. This process would include a bill in Congress designed to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to ban kids under 18 from jobs that put them in direct physical contact with tobacco plants or leaves – a situation that has led the majority to report symptoms of nicotine poisoning.

In fact, a Human Rights Watch report on tobacco from last May claiming that almost 75% of the children it interviewed has experienced workplace illness including vomiting, nausea and headaches while working in tobacco fields. Those symptoms match those of nicotine poisoning, often called “green tobacco sickness,” which workers can suffer when they absorb nicotine through their skin in the process of handling tobacco plants. The HRW report was produced using interviews with over 140 children working on farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where most of the nation’s tobacco is grown.

“Children working in tobacco are among the nation’s most vulnerable and we must do more to protect them,” wrote the lawmakers, who called the Human Rights Watch report “deeply troubling.”

For now, the US Labor Department has declined to comment. Not surprisingly, most of large tobacco manufacturers, such as Philip Morris and Altria Group Inc., didn’t respond to the Associated Press’s request for comment earlier this week. Yet earlier this spring, Philip Morris CEO Andre Calantzopoulos acknowledged the problem by stating that the Human Rights Watch report had uncovered “serious child labor abuses that should not occur on any farm, anywhere.”

An Altria spokesman said at the time that restricting tobacco work to people 18 and over “is really contrary to a lot of the current practices that are in place in the U.S. and is at odds in these communities where family farming is really a way of life.”

In the U.S., agriculture labor laws are different from those in other sectors like service or manufacturing; they permit children on farms to work longer hours at younger ages and in more dangerous circumstances than children in any other industry. In fact, with a parent or guardian’s permission, children as young as 12 years old can be hired for unlimited hours outside of school hours on a farm of any size.

“Working in tobacco fields can have harmful consequences on children, and it’s time child protection laws and regulations caught up with our values as a nation,” Cicilline said in a statement.

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