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Dispatches: Obama Bans E-Cigarettes for Kids, but Not Child Labor in Tobacco Fields

Kids under age 18 soon will no longer be able to buy e-cigarettes in the United States, according to new regulations  announced last week by the Obama administration. Yet it remains legal for kids as young as 12 to be exposed to nicotine working on US tobacco farms.

A young woman is seen smoking an e-cigarette. © National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

In recent years, the use of e-cigarettes by high schoolers has risen sharply. In 2005, only 1.5 percent of high school teens reported e-cigarette use, but by 2011, 16 percent of high schoolers used the products. In announcing the new regulations on e-cigarettes last week, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell said they were “common sense” to protect children from tobacco.

Such “common sense” is still lacking in tobacco production. Working with tobacco leaves can cause acute nicotine poisoning, marked by nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Some of the pesticides commonly used in tobacco farming are known neurotoxins, chemicals that can destroy nerve tissue. Yet 12-year olds can work 50 or 60 hours a week on a US tobacco farm – as long as it’s not during school hours – and it’s perfectly legal.

“Sofia,” a 17-year-old tobacco worker, in a tobacco field in North Carolina. She started working at 13, and she said her mother was the only one who taught her how to protect herself in the fields: “None of my bosses or contractors or crew leaders have ever told us anything about pesticides and how we can protect ourselves from them….When I worked with my mom, she would take care of me, and she would like always make sure I was okay.…Our bosses don’t give us anything except for our checks. That’s it.” © 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has been drawing attention to the dangers of tobacco farming for children for years, calling on the Obama administration to issue regulations prohibiting children from working in direct contact with tobacco. The New York Times and the Washington Post have similarly called on the administration for action. But so far, the administration has made no commitment to regulate child labor on tobacco farms.

Under the new regulations on e-cigarettes, manufacturers must meet standards set by the Food and Drug Administration, place health warnings on packages, and report any harms of the product. Most of these requirements won’t be implemented for years, but the ban on sales to children under 18 will take effect in 90 days.

“We’ve agreed for years that nicotine does not belong in the hands of children,” Secretary Burwell said.

Indeed. If the administration can implement a ban on e-cigarettes for children in 90 days, it can ban children from working with toxic tobacco plants.


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