Children as young as 12 are endangering their health by picking tobacco in the United States where the practice of having young people work on farms outside of school is completely legal, Human Rights Watch has warned.
Despite not being allowed to purchase tobacco products until the age of 18, children can legally work on tobacco picking farms from the age of 12.
According to HRW, some children who work on farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia have reported vomiting, nausea, headaches, and dizziness while working on tobacco farm.
These are all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning or 'green tobacco sickness', the group claims.
"I didn't feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up," said one 16-year-old, who worked pulling tops off of tobacco plants to help increase yields, according to HRW, which interviewed 141 young people aged between seven and 17 working on tobacco farms.
The children also reported working long hours in extreme heat and sometimes in dangerous conditions.
Under US law, children cannot work on farms during school hours, but they can work in the field at other times, and hours increase especially in the summer, when school is not in session and the tobacco crop season is at its peak.
“As the school year ends, children are heading into the tobacco fields, where they can’t avoid being exposed to dangerous nicotine, without smoking a single cigarette,” Margaret Wurth, a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report said.
“It’s no surprise the children exposed to poisons in the tobacco fields are getting sick.”
HRW also highlighted the dangers to health pesticides used in tobacco production could pose in the long term, which it claims include cancer, problems with learning and cognition, and reproductive health issues.
“Tobacco companies shouldn’t benefit from hazardous child labour,” Ms Wurth added. “They have a responsibility to adopt clear, comprehensive policies that get children out of dangerous work on tobacco farms, and make sure the farms follow the rules.”
In 2011, the Labour Department proposed changes that would have prohibited children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, but they were withdrawn in 2012.
HRW notified 10 tobacco companies of its findings, including Altria Group Inc, Lorillard Inc, Philip Morris International Inc, and Reynolds American Inc , and urged 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. It said all of the companies except China National Tobacco responded and expressed concern about child labour in their supply chains.
Tom Harkin, chairman of the US Senate's panel on health and labour issues, said in a statement none of the companies' policies were sufficient and that he would contact them in coming days.