Big Tobacco Protecting Children Better Than U.S. Government

Child Rights
Safety

A pretty good indicator that U.S. laws protecting children are just not good enough is that tobacco companies voluntarily hold themselves to a higher standard. But just this week, Altria Group, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, announced it would prohibit growers for hiring child laborers under age 16, a new regulation that offers greater protections to children working on U.S. farms than existing U.S. labor laws.

The announcement comes just months after the release of a Human Rights Watch report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children, on tobacco child labor in the United States. Today in America, children as young as age 12 are allowed to work unlimited hours (outside of school) on tobacco farms. Like the 13-year-old profiled by the New York Times who works 12-hour shifts and sometimes has trouble breathing and getting access to water at work. These child laborers are exposed to nicotine, and nicotine poisoning, at levels similar to smokers, despite being too young to buy and consume tobacco. They also face extreme heat and pesticides. Most of the child laborers reported nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness.

Despite the danger, the U.S. Department of Labor has refused to toughen lax child labor laws after facing pressure from agribusiness lobbyists.

Altria’s new child labor standards will take effect in the beginning of 2015 and include parental consideration for children under age 18 working in tobacco farming, in addition to the ban on hiring children under age 16. It will not apply to children working on family farms. The rule replaces Atria’s current policy of deferring to U.S. labor law. The Eliminating Child Labor in Tobacco Growing Foundation, a tobacco industry trade group, has pledged to “progressively eliminate” child labor in the global supply chain, including a minimum age of 15 for child laborers.

First Focus Campaign for Children has worked with Human Rights Watch since the report’s release to advocate for stronger policies to protect children in the U.S. from hazardous child labor, including amending the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to improve the age and work hour standards of children working in agriculture, and strengthen provisions for pesticide exposure.