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Tobacco: Kids Can't Smoke It, But They Pick It in NC

PHOTO: Some children working with tobacco plants wear trash bags to protect themselves from absorbing nicotine from the wet leaves. Kids are especially vulnerable to what's known as green tobacco sickness, essentially the nicotine poisoning of a non-smoker with the blood nicotine level of a pack-a-day habit. Photo credit: Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch.
PHOTO: Some children working with tobacco plants wear trash bags to protect themselves from absorbing nicotine from the wet leaves. Kids are especially vulnerable to what's known as green tobacco sickness, essentially the nicotine poisoning of a non-smoker with the blood nicotine level of a pack-a-day habit. Photo credit: Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch.
November 19, 2014

GREENSBORO, N.C. - Children half the legal smoking age reportedly are laboring in tobacco fields in North Carolina.

It's hard to tell how many or how old they are, but an Oxfam America study found many start when they are under 18.

Baldemar Velasquez, president of the AFL-CIO's Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), said children who work to help their families get by typically start in their early teens - although sometimes, much younger.

"Seven, eight on up," he said. "We've seen kids this summer that were 13, 15 - and they'd tell us they'd worked in tobacco for seven years, five years."

The major tobacco companies all have policies against child labor, but a federal loophole intended for farm families leaves the practice in a legal gray area. Most growers insist they obey the law, to the best of their ability.

Velasquez said he worked harvesting tobacco as a teen, and started with his family at age 6, adding that "it was either that or not eating."

Families, often here illegally and paid low wages, are at the mercy of labor contractors, Velasquez said, adding that economic pressures mean farm owners and cigarette companies look the other way when crew leaders break the law.

"Doesn't matter to the crew leader, the labor contractor, because he gets the money from the harvest," Velasquez said. "He doesn't care how small the hands are that are putting the cut tobacco on the trailer, as long as the acres get done."

According to a separate report from Human Rights Watch, half of tobacco workers make less than minimum wage. It found 12-hour days are common and 16-hour days not unusual. The reports say the kids especially are vulnerable to green tobacco sickness, a type of nicotine poisoning. Velasquez says the victims get dizzy and nauseous – like a non-smoker with the blood nicotine of a pack-a-day habit.

"When you try to eat, nothing tastes right," he said. "Workers say they try to drink milk, because it's the only thing that they can consume when you get really, really sick."

Off the farms, the United States eliminated most child labor decades ago. Velasquez said the fights that unions won in the mills of North Carolina still have to be fought in the tobacco fields.

"These are symptoms of a broader labor problem," he said. "We used to have children in the mines of America, textile mills of America. When unions were formed, they negotiated away those conditions."

The Oxfam/FLOC report is online at oxfamamerica.org. The HRW report is at hrw.org.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC