Statement from Legacy Underscores the Appalling Health Risks Child Laborers Are Forced to Endure in 21st Century America

Release Date:

May 14, 2014

Washington, D.C. –Today, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report titled Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming, which documents the hazardous conditions and toxic environments of U.S. child tobacco farm workers. The report, based on interviews with 141 child tobacco workers, ages seven to 17, provides first hand insights from children working on tobacco farms in four states: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

The report found that children working on tobacco farms in the U.S. often work 50 or 60 hours a week in extreme heat, use dangerous tools and machinery and are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides. Nearly three-quarters of the children interviewed by HRW reported the sudden onset of serious but common symptoms due to nicotine exposure—including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and irritation to their eyes and mouths—while working in fields of tobacco plants and in barns with dried tobacco leaves and tobacco dust. Many of these children work on tobacco farms with no health and safety training and most often without protective gear.

It is illegal for children under 18 to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products. Astonishingly however, our current laws do not acknowledge the risks to children working in tobacco farming or provide the same protections to children working in agriculture as they do in all other sectors. The majority of the children interviewed for the report were the children of Hispanic immigrants, though they themselves were frequently US citizens. These children, who are often working to help support their families, provide yet another shamefully tragic example of how tobacco is disproportionately impacting minority communities.

The tobacco grown on U.S. farms is purchased by the largest tobacco companies in the world, and few, if any, have child labor policies that sufficiently protect children from hazardous work. It is Legacy’s position that no child under the age of 18 should perform work where they come into direct contact with tobacco in any form, due to the inherent health risks posed by nicotine.

Exposure to nicotine at young ages is a significant concern because of its effects on the developing brain. Fetal nicotine exposure can lead to increased risk of subsequent attention, cognitive and behavioral problems, and even increase the chances that exposed youth themselves start to use tobacco products. Adolescent exposure can also alter the number and function of nicotine receptors in the brain, and these effects could persist into adulthood, setting the stage for addiction and related problems.

It is our hope that the release of this report, which details the fact that so many children have reported acute illnesses and dangerous working conditions, will signal regulators to take the necessary steps to remove children from tobacco farming. It is unconscionable that in 2014, our nation could continue to condemn innocent children, who oftentimes don’t even use tobacco, to a lifetime of tobacco-related disease and death simply because they are working to help support their families.

Legacy applauds HRW for shining a much-needed spotlight on the atrocious conditions under which American children are forced to work while US tobacco manufacturers reap billions in profits.

Read the release from Human Rights Watch:

 To read the full report visit:

Legacy helps people live longer, healthier lives by building a world where young people reject tobacco and anyone can quit. Legacy’s proven-effective and nationally recognized public education programs include truth®, the national youth smoking prevention campaign that has been cited as contributing to significant declines in youth smoking; EX®, an innovative public health program designed to speak to smokers in their own language and change the way they approach quitting; and research initiatives exploring the causes, consequences and approaches to reducing tobacco use. Located in Washington, D.C., the foundation was created as a result of the November 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) reached between attorneys general from 46 states, five U.S. territories and the tobacco industry. To learn more about Legacy’s life-saving programs, visit

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