Kids can't buy tobacco products, but in Tennessee children as young as 9 are working in tobacco fields and suffering symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, according to a report by an international human rights group.
In most cases, there is nothing illegal about the practice. State and federal child labor laws carve out exemptions for agricultural work, allowing children of any age to work on small farms. Children 12 and older can work unlimited hours outside of school at any farm with a parent's permission. At 14, children can do farm work without a parent's permission.
But a new report by New York-based Human Rights Watch highlights hazards facing children laboring in tobacco fields.
"I've gotten sick," a 9-year-old identified in the report only as "Patrick W." told researchers about his work at a Macon County farm. "We started cutting [tobacco plants], and I had to go home. I kept on coughing (heaving), and I had to eat crackers and drink some Gatorade. … I threw up a little bit. It took two or three hours before I felt better."
The report noted that Patrick's father, like many tobacco workers, is paid a fixed rate and brought his children to work to increase his harvest.
Tennessee remains among the top four tobacco-producing states in the nation, alongside border states North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia.
In total, Human Rights Watch interviewed 140 children working in tobacco fields in the four states. The children reported long hours; injuries from sharp "tobacco knives" used to harvest crops; and bouts of vomiting, nausea, fainting, rashes and headaches consistent with "green tobacco sickness" — nicotine poisoning typically caused by absorption through the skin.
The group is advocating for stronger protections for children who work on tobacco farms from both the federal government and the tobacco industry.
Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for Altria, the corporate owner of the nation's biggest cigarette company, Philip Morris USA, said the company is "aware that child labor in agriculture is an issue of concern for many folks. Here at Altria, we do not condone any unlawful exploitation of farm workers, especially under the age of 18."
Altria contracts with hundreds of Tennessee farmers to purchase tobacco and owns Nashville-based U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co.
However, Caldwell said that Human Rights Watch's advocacy for labor law changes is "counter to farming practices and counter to state, local and federal laws."
The company is committed to working with stakeholders, including growers, advocacy groups and the industry, in "developing feasible ways to address those concerns."
Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Jane Buchanan noted the study was particularly challenging to conduct in Tennessee.
"These kids are really part of a hidden population," she said. "There aren't organized groups to support their interests. In other states like North Carolina, there are more programs supporting them. In Tennessee, unfortunately, there aren't those kinds of networks and programs."
Tennessee remains among the top four tobacco- producing states in the nation, alongside border states North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia.