A 16-year-old worker harvests tobacco on a farm in Kentucky.

© 2013 Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch

Last summer, thousands of children, many only 12 or 13 years old, worked in US tobacco fields and curing barns, often suffering acute nicotine poisoning from their contact with the plants. But next summer, the picture may be different, thanks to a rapid series of policy changes by major players in the tobacco industry.

In the past week, the two biggest US tobacco companies – Altria Group and Reynolds American – independently announced that beginning in 2015, they will prohibit their growers from employing children under the age of 16. These companies manufacture some of the best-selling cigarette brands in the world, including Camel, Marlboro, and Winston.

Their announcements came on the heels of similar policies from two of the largest US tobacco growers’ associations and a new joint pledge by more than a dozen international tobacco manufacturers and tobacco leaf companies to end child labor in their supply chains and abide by international child labor laws.  

These changes were sorely needed. In a Human Rights Watch investigation published in May, we found children too young to buy cigarettes working 10-12 hours a day in tobacco fields and curing barns in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Many of the children we interviewed described headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting – all symptoms of nicotine poisoning, which happens when people absorb nicotine through their skin.

The new policies from the tobacco industry stand in stark contrast to incredibly lax US laws and regulations – which allow 12-year-olds with parental permission to work unlimited hours on farms of any size, outside of school hours. They set no minimum age for children working on small farms. Federal standards also lack any provisions to protect children from the risks of handling tobacco, including nicotine exposure.

The new company standards still have gaps – most companies allow 16 and 17-year-olds to do some of the most harmful jobs on tobacco farms, like harvesting tobacco leaves. And the changes in policy won’t mean much for the children we interviewed unless the companies also address the issues underlying child labor on tobacco farms.  That means not only investing in community programs that can provide children with alternatives to working in tobacco, but ensuring that the rights of all tobacco workers are respected, including to organize and bargain collectively over wages and working conditions. The companies will also need to ensure rigorous monitoring to make sure that the new policies are implemented.

With respect to child workers, the tobacco industry is moving in the right direction. Meanwhile, Congress and the Obama administration have done little to protect child tobacco workers. Voluntary steps by the industry are critically important, but they need to be matched by strong laws and regulations.