THE BLOG
05/21/2014 01:34 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

Watch: Working in Tobacco but Too Young to Smoke

I expect my soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter will spend a lot of time this summer outdoors -- as will Elena, another 13-year-old American. Like many of her fortunate peers, my child will be going to camp, playing soccer, swimming, hanging out with friends. Elena will likely do what she's done the past two summers: working long, exhausting and dangerous days in the tobacco fields of North Carolina.

It's a grueling way for a teen to spend a summer vacation. "I felt very tired," Elena told Human Rights Watch researchers who investigated child labor on U.S. tobacco farms last year. "I would barely eat anything because I wouldn't get hungry ... We would get our lunch break, and I would barely eat, I would just drink ... Sometimes I felt like I needed to throw up ... I felt like I was going to faint. I would stop and just hold myself up with the tobacco plant."

Elena is just one of hundreds of thousands of children who work on American farms of all kinds. In fact, farm work is the only job legally available in the U.S. to children under 14, because most jobs here are only open to kids 16 and over. There are exceptions for 14- and 15-year-olds, but those are very tightly regulated in terms of the kinds of tasks and hours worked.

Many of us worked -- and needed to work -- summer jobs, and I understand the benefits. But even a lot of legal agricultural work is hazardous to children's health, what with the dangerous machinery, sharp tools, and pesticides. In 2012, more than two thirds of the 28 children killed on the job were agricultural workers; more than 1,800 child farm workers were injured that year.

In tobacco fields, the plants themselves are toxic. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 141 children ages 7 to 17 about their work in tobacco fields in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Three quarters described symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, also known as Green Tobacco Sickness.

"It happens when you're out in the sun," said a 16-year-old girl in Kentucky. "You want to throw up. And you drink water because you're so thirsty, but the water makes you feel worse. You throw up right there when you're cutting [tobacco plants], but you just keep cutting."

A 12-year-old boy in North Carolina described a headache he had while working: "It was horrible. It felt like there was something in my head trying to eat it."

Exposure to pesticides, especially the neurotoxins commonly used in tobacco farming, can also cause harm to developing bodies. So children who aren't allowed to buy cigarettes can (legally) put their health at risk on behalf of smokers worldwide. The tobacco leaves they harvest are sold to make some of the biggest global cigarette brands, including Camel, Marlboro, Dunhill, Pall Mall, Gauloises and Newport.

I keep imagining the 7th graders I know in their place: wearing black garbage bags to try to keep dry because nicotine gets absorbed more quickly when tobacco leaves are wet from dew or rain, then sweltering under the plastic in a Southern summer. Using soccer shin guards to protect their legs when harvesting tobacco with axes. Climbing up into tall barns to hang tobacco to dry. Working without a proper lunch break, a bathroom to visit, or soap to wash off the nicotine -- and sometimes without water to drink.

The United States is the fourth largest tobacco producer in the world after China, Brazil and India. The last two both ban children from working in tobacco fields (at least on paper). But the U.S. doesn't even recognize that work in tobacco fields is hazardous.

Working at Human Rights Watch I hear about the worst that people can do to one another. But this story hurt because these children are so close to home. And because the tobacco companies could end these abuses if they pushed the industry to stop hiring kids and instead funded educational programs and other alternatives for kids in farmworker communities.

My daughter thinks sending kids out to the fields and risk nicotine poisoning is terrible and that stopping it is a no-brainer. My colleagues are urging Congress to do something -- but who knows how long that will take. So I'm signing a petition urging cigarette companies to stop using child labor in the United States -- and I'm asking you to do the same.

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