Child Labor on Tobacco Farms: The Economy, Health Risks, and the Laws

Cathy Tran

University of Nevada Las Vegas*


*The author is a graduate assistant in the Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada-Las Vegas. This is a revision of a graduate seminar paper.


“Child labour is a world-wide phenomenon. Whether a country itself has child labour or it imports goods made by the hands of children, every nation is somehow implicated in the process. Child labour is also not only a problem in the South, but also affects many developed countries” (Katikaneni 1998:1)



Child labor is a worldwide issue that is often ignored for various reasons. Among the industries that employ children, tobacco farming is the most harmful to a child’s mental and physical health. Children are exposed to dangerous chemicals and sicknesses such as poisoning from nicotine and Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS). Children working under such conditions are not cared for because the government is not enforcing child labor laws because of the profit that tobacco brings in through taxation. This paper will discuss the tobacco industry, conditions that children and adult farm workers are exposed to, and the laws surrounding child labor. This paper will also provide some policy implications that will decrease the prevalence of child labor and prevention methods that could help current tobacco farmers.



          Child labor is a prominent issue that is seen and known but is ignored because of the economic gains that it brings to businesses and the government. Children are seen working in the kitchen of restaurants, in the basement of factories, on farms and fields, construction sites, children are also seen in prostitution and human trafficking. In 1990 approximately 79 million children around the world did regular work (Basu & Van, 1998); in 1995 approximately 120 million of the world’s children between the ages of 5-14 did full-time work; many worked under dangerous and hazardous conditions for more than ten hours per day (Basu, 1999). It can be seen here that child labor is a growing phenomenon. The issue of child labor is commonly seen in many third world countries due to its poverty level, children are often encouraged or coerced to work as adults do to support themselves and their families. Table 1 shows the prevalence of child labor in different countries, the darker shade of purple shows countries where children are most at risk of being involved in child labor, and the lighter shade being of lower risk. America as seen here ranks second in risk-level which is not as bad as other countries; however, in a country that praises itself on equality and the protection of its citizens, children should not be in the work force.

Table 1: Child Labor Risks

Table 2: Distribution of Child Labor


Table 2 shows the percentage of children that are working in each industry. As seen here the majority of children, 70.4% are working in agricultural which is described as hunting, fishing and forestry; what is not listed here is the amount of children that are working on tobacco farms. There are various industries that employ children this paper will focus on children working on tobacco farms, mainly the economic gains of employers, the health risks that all tobacco farm workers face, and the laws surrounding child labor. First, we will take a look at the tobacco industry.

In 1997 approximately 1.6 billion pounds of tobacco was produced over 700,000 acres of land; with North Carolina leading the way with the production of 684 million pounds across 314,000 acres (Quandt, Arcury, Preisser, Norton, Austin, 2000). Here in the United States, tobacco is being grown in 16 states, with Kentucky and North Carolina producing 71% of the total production (CDC Report). The sale and production of tobacco is only increasing[1] with the pressing need for workers and the capitalistic nature of society, businessmen will find a way to minimize their expenses while maximizing their benefits. This is done through the exploitation of workers, by employing minority workers, illegal immigrants, and children these companies are getting hard labor with minimal pay. The tasks and jobs of these workers will be discussed.

More than three-fourths (78%) of children working on tobacco farms are US citizens, with the rest composed mainly of Hispanic ethnicity (Human Rights Watch, 2014). Most children started working on tobacco farms at the age of 13. These children described working in tobacco farming to help support their families, to buy basic necessities and school supplies. Children interviewed in this study were found to be working anywhere from 50-60 hours per week and performed a variety of tasks: planting seedlings, weeding, topping tobacco to remove flowers, removing other leaves, applying pesticides, and cutting tobacco plants, to name a few. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), child labor refers to:

Children prematurely leading adult lives, normally working long hours for low wages under conditions damaging to their health and of their physical and mental development, sometimes separated from their families, frequently deprived of meaningful education training opportunities that could open up for them better future (ILO, 2014).


This definition fits child labor on tobacco farms well. Many children migrate from home onto farms for work, even though the majority of the children work during the summer some do work year-round on these farms. Being exposed to tobacco for long periods of time is dangerous to the child’s health; they are exposed to poison such pesticide and GTS[2] these health risks are not only dangerous to children workers but also adults. Some children start working at a young age and continue to do so throughout their adult life (Human Rights Watch, 2014). Since a portion of these workers are illegal immigrants they have no other choice but to work under such conditions, they cannot report their conditions to anyone and do not even know how to do so. Children working on tobacco farms face many dangers to their mental and physical health, but this problem continue to exist because of the wealth that the tobacco industry brings in. We will now discuss the economic impact of tobacco, the wealth that it brings to the US and to tobacco employers.

The Economy of Child Labor

          Before talking about how much the tobacco industry makes, let’s take a look at the harm that smoking does to the body. According to the CDC, cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year, which is 1 in 5 deaths nationwide. Smoking causes more deaths than: HIV, drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle accidents, and firearm-related incidents combined. Smoking causes about 90% of all lung cancer deaths in men and women; the risk of dying from cigarette smoking has increased over the last 50 years for both men and women in the United States. Smoking increases the risk for: coronary heart disease (from 2 to 4 times), stroke (from 2 to 4 times), men developing lung cancer by 25 times, and women developing lung cancer by 25.7 times. Smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body: bladder, cervix, colon and rectum, kidney, liver, stomach, and the lung. Smoking can make it difficult for female to get pregnant and affect men’s sperm, which can reduce fertility. Women who smoke during pregnancy risk their child’s health including but is not limited to: premature births, stillbirths, low birth weight, and sudden infant death syndrome. Even one cigarette a day can drastically change your health. So how can such a harmful product not be banned but is thriving more than ever? The answer is the money.

According to calculations done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2011 the tobacco industry spent:

·         $8.4 billion on cigarette advertising and promotional expenses

·         $8.8 billion for cigarette and smokeless tobacco marketing (e-cigarettes, cigars, pipes)

Also in 2011:

·         293 billion cigarettes were purchased with the top three companies: Phillip Morris USA, Reynolds American Inc., and Lorillard selling 85% of the 293 billion

·         124.6 million pounds of smokeless tobacco purchased in the United States

·         13.7 billion cigars purchased

     It is difficult to find the exact amount of profit that tobacco companies make annually but according to an article on World Lung Foundation, the top six tobacco companies in the United States made approximately $35 billion in 2010. This amount is equal to the profit made by McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola combined for the same year. In the United States 331 billion packs of cigarettes are sold annually and an average convenience store sells about $438,000 worth of cigarettes each year. Of course, with all the profits that these companies are making, the government is also benefiting. According to a report the federal tax rate per pack is approximately $1.0066; state tax rates vary with the lowest being in South Carolina with $.07 per pack and the highest in New York with $2.75 per pack. Based on these calculations, in 2009 the government took in a little over $8.5 billion in federal tax, and the state took in approximately $15.7 billion in gross tax revenues (Transformation Tobacco, 2014). From all these figures it is obvious why such a harmful product is thriving, not only are tobacco farm owners and tobacco companies profiting, small businesses that sell tobacco products are also profiting, and of course the government is profiting hugely from these sales. The government will continue to support tobacco production and sale because of the profit that the industry brings in, regardless of the exploitation of its workers, and regardless of the health issues related to smoking. 

Health Risks of Working on Tobacco Farms

          Health risks are concerns for all workers on tobacco farms, not just limited to children. These risks also vary from small injuries to serious health implications. Nearly all children interviewed said their employers did not provide health education, safety training, or personal protective equipment to minimize exposure to nicotine or pesticides sprayed in the field. Of 133 children interviewed by Human Rights Watch, 97 (73%) reported feeling sick with nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, difficulty breathing and irritation to their eyes and mouths while working on the field. Many reported working in extreme heat for long hours, others reported being sprayed over with pesticides when it was meant for the field, many have cuts and injuries from using the tools, others have sprain and aches from lifting heavy loads for long hours. Some reported they were not given water during working hours, no access to toilets, no proper break time, and had no shade (Human Rights Watch, 2014). Among these health issues, the most prominent consequence of tobacco exposure and is unique to tobacco exposure is Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS).

          Green Tobacco Sickness is a form of nicotine poisoning that affects workers who have direct contact with tobacco plant during cultivation and harvesting (McBride, Altman, Klein, White, 1998). GTS occurs when workers are exposed to wet tobacco leaves, nicotine is drawn out because they are soluble in water and is absorbed through the skin and spread throughout the body; this process happens when workers are collecting the leaves in rain, dew, or because of the extreme heat they often take their shirts off, and the nicotine absorbs through their perspiration. Symptoms of GTS include: headache/nausea, vomiting, weakness, diarrhea, increase salivation, chills, abdominal pain, severe prostration, fluctuation in blood pressure, shortness of breath, and pallor. Many symptoms are similar to those of heat exhaustion and pesticide exposure so it is often misdiagnosed. Domestically, GTS is prevalent in Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina; internationally it has been seen in India and Japan (McBride et al., 1998). Even though GTS is a prevalent issue in the tobacco industry there are fewer than 30 published literatures on the issue.

          In a study by Quandt et al. (2000) on adult, migrant workers and GTS, 41% of 144 respondents reported having GTS during the summer they worked. 24% reported they experienced GTS once, 33% twice, 22% three times, and 21% four or more times. 96% of those with GTS tried to treat it using anti-nausea medications; only 9% sought medical treatment, and 7% loss work time due to being sick or while seeking treatment. GTS is found to be of higher prevalence with migrant workers than other populations. These respondents “treat” GTS by taking over the counter pills or by wearing gloves, masks and using other protective gears, they do not realize that these protective gears are ineffective once GTS is already in their system. It is evident that GTS affects enough workers for it to be a concern, but it is often ignored.

          Employers do not provide proper treatments for the workers once they caught GTS, the workers have to pay for their own treatments and most cannot afford to do so. McBride et al. (1998) estimated the costs of treatments for GTS as follows: $250 for outpatient treatment, $566 for hospital admission, and $2041 for intensive-care treatment. These figures do not account for loss of income and productivity for someone during treatment. Children earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour, but some children reported earning less than that amount because employers would deduct money for drinking water or reasons that were not explained to them, and for miscalculations of hours (there was no evidence that employers would deduct from the workers’ wages for tools and other necessities for work). One child reported earning $40 for six days of work (Human Rights Watch, 2014, p. 82). Earning minimum wage with random deductions, these children cannot afford to pay for treatments, so many just suffer through it hoping it would go away, and their condition only worsens.

          The exposure to pesticides is another important health issue. Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported having to spray pesticides over the fields using handheld sprayer or backpack, or operated tractors that were spraying pesticides. As mentioned above, many workers are sprayed with pesticides if they are on the field when the tractor comes by spraying the entire field. Pesticides enter the body when they are inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin, its implications are as follows:

…Pesticide exposure is associated with acute health problems including nausea, dizziness, vomiting, headaches, abdominal pain, and skin and eye problems. Exposure to large doses of pesticides can have severe health effect including spontaneous abortion and birth deformities, loss of consciousness, coma and death. Long-term and chronic health effects of pesticide exposure include respiratory problems, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems (Human Right Watch, 2014, p. 49).


          Children are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures as their brains and bodies are still developing, their immune system is still weak. Children and adults working under such harsh conditions and exposed to such dangerous health issues are not protected because of the inadequacies of the law.

Child Labor Legislation[3]

Early child labor legislations aimed to increase the education received by children in factories. The first state to enact child labor law was Massachusetts in 1837 (Moehling, 1999), which prohibited manufacturing establishments from employing children under the age of 15 who had not attended school for at least 3 months in the previous year. However, these laws were not met with consistent enforcement; these laws require that employers “knowingly” and “willfully” violate the laws, which made it very difficult to prosecute violators. Further efforts to restrict working hours and days for children were met with resistance by manufacturers since children was an important component of the manufacturing workforce at the time, over 20% of manufacturing employment in the Northeast in 1820 were children (Moehling, 1999). By 1900, only four states had minimum age limit: Louisiana, Maryland, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

In recent years, Congress passed acts such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which established federal workplace safety, rules and requires employers to provide a safe and healthful work environment and comply with occupational safety and health standards regardless of their age. Equal Employment Opportunity laws have been passed, which prevent discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, age and retaliation. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which established rules regarding employment of individuals under the age of 18, in addition to rules for young workers, provisions for minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping.

Table 3: U.S. Federal Child Labor Law


Non-Agricultural Employment

Agricultural Employment

Minimum Age for Non-Hazardous Employment

14 years old

Exception: newspaper delivery, performing in radio, television, movie, or theatrical productions, and work for parents in family business (except manufacturing or hazardous jobs)

10-11 years old, with parental consent, on farms not covered by minimum wage requirements

12-13 years old, with parental consent

14-15 years old, no restrictions on non-hazardous work

Minimum Age for Hazardous Employment

18 years old

16 years old

Maximum Hours of Employment for youth under 16-years-old

No work during school hours.


On school days: 3hrs/day, 18hrs/week maximum

When school is out of session: 8hrs/day, 40hrs/week

Labor Day to May 31: work must occur between 7am-7pm

June 1-Labor Day: all work must occur between 7am-9pm

No working during school hours.

Federal Minimum Wage and Overtime

Federal Minimum is $7.25 per hour

Youth minimum is $4.25 per hour for employees under 20 years of age during their first 90 consecutive calendar days of employment with an employer

Overtime (1 ˝ regular pay) must be paid after 40 hours/week

Many agricultural employers are exempt from federal minimum wage requirements.

For agricultural employers who are not exempt from minimum wage laws, the same federal and youth minimum discussed in the non-agricultural section would apply.

Agricultural employees are exempt from overtime requirements under federal law.


          Table 3 describes the current federal laws on child labor. It can be seen here that there are restriction to children under certain age group from certain jobs, work hours, and workdays. “Hazardous” work as defined by Human Rights Watch refers to:

a)    Work which exposes children to physical, emotional or sexual abuse;

b)    Work underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces;

c)    Work with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads;

d)    Work in an unhealthy environment which many, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents to processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging to their health;

e)    Work under particularly difficult conditions such as work for long hours or during the night or work which does not allow for the possibility of returning home each day (Human Rights Watch, 2014, p. 90).

Evidently, the tasks and responsibilities of tobacco farm are classified as hazardous work and children should not be allowed to do such work. But, as mentioned before, children working on these farms are often from poor families and have no other means of employment, or are illegals that cannot find legal employment. Human Rights Watch also reported that many employers would pay the workers in cash, which makes the employment of illegal immigrants much easier. Table 3 also states the minimum wage required for non-agricultural and agricultural workers, however, many agricultural employers are exempt from minimum wage requirements and agricultural employees are exempt from overtime wages. According to the US Department of Labor, agricultural employers are exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay when they “did not utilize more than 500 man day of agricultural labor in any calendar quarter of the preceding calendar year” (US Department of Labor, 2014). A “man day” is defined as any day during which an employee performs agricultural work for at least 1 hour. Other exemptions include: those who are paid on piece rate basis,[4] or worked in agriculture less than 13 weeks during the preceding calendar year, and non-local minors (16 and under) who are hand harvesters, paid on piece rate basis, working on the same farm as their parents. These exemptions are loopholes that employers can use to avoid paying workers their deserved wages.

Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported working anywhere from 12-16 hours a day, approximately 50-60 hours per week. They usually start work at 6am or 7am and work until 7pm or 8pm. They get one 10-15 minute break in the morning and one in the afternoon, and a 30-60 minute lunch break. However, many children reported employers shortening their break or deprived them of their breaks, not even allowing them to take a break when they feel sick and exhausted. Many worked seven days a week, they are often pressured to work fast, not given access to bathrooms, they have to pay for water, get no shade among many other unfair treatments. Some children reported choosing to not take their breaks so they could earn the as much as they could, but are often cheated out of their wages; employers promised the minimum wage but usually only pay these workers $6 for their work. These working conditions are clearly in violation of legislations but not much is being done to change it. Workers who are US citizens are uneducated or have no other opportunities for jobs so they have to take what they can get, illegal immigrants are too scared of deportation to say anything about their conditions. The government is aware of these working conditions but of course it is more important to be able to tax tobacco sales and not offend the big players in the industry than it is to protect the rights and welfare of the people.

          In writing this paper various reports, studies, researches, and website articles were read to gather information on the main topic: child labor on tobacco farms. This is a form of secondary data analysis, and the various methods used are divided among three main topics: Human Rights Watch report (which was the main report used throughout this paper), GTS, and labor laws.

Human Rights Watch – Tobacco’s Hidden Children

          This report is based on interviews with 141 children ages 7 to 17 that had worked in tobacco farming in the United States in 2010-2013. During multiple trips between May and October of 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 80 children in North Carolina, 46 in Kentucky, 12 in Tennessee, and 3 in Virginia. The median age of these children were 15 median age at which they began work was 13. A few worked on farms by themselves, others worked with their parents. HRW also interviewed 3 people ages 18-21 that had worked in tobacco as children, and 7 parents of tobacco workers. The children interviewed were identified with the assistance of individuals and organizations proving legal, health, educational and social services to farmworkers. HRW researchers also conducted interviews with 36 experts on the tobacco subject including: lawyers, social services providers, healthcare providers, and representatives of farm worker organizations, and academics, bringing the total number of interviewees to 187. In addition to interviews, researchers spoke with more than 50 outreach workers, educators, doctors, tobacco growers, farm labor contractors, and other representatives either in person or through phone conversations. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish depending on the interviewee’s preference. No interviews were conducted in front of employers to ensure safety and honesty. All interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview, all on voluntary basis.

Green Tobacco Sickness

          Two articles were used in discussing GTS. Quandt et al. (2000) surveyed 144 Hispanic migrant and seasonal farm workers working in tobacco production in North Carolina to obtain self-reports of GTS, preventive behaviors, and treatments. McBride (1998) did a literature search of terms: green, tobacco, and sickness from 1966-1998. All studies, reviews, and commentaries that provided information on the health effects of harvesting green tobacco and disease prevention strategies were chosen. In addition to these two articles, chapter 3 (pg. 35-69) from Human Rights Watch report also contributed to the discussion on GTS.

          Child labor on tobacco farm is not just a problem in America, as mentioned above GTS is also prevalent in Japan and India which means that there is also a large production of tobacco in those countries. Tobacco production is also of prevalence all throughout Africa (Eldring, 2000). Various reports on child labor on tobacco farms have come to the same conclusions: children working on tobacco farms are overworked while being under paid, are exposed to serious health risks, and labor laws are not enforced. These workers have to suffer under these conditions because they are poorly educated and have no other opportunities for employment, or they are illegal immigrants and cannot fight their employers. The government is turning a blind eye to these problems regarding health, safety in the work environment, unfair pay, and the exploitation of children because the tobacco industry is bringing in millions of dollars in tax each year. There are efforts from voluntary groups that are trying to further expose child labor and raise awareness, but there is little they can do without public support and support from federal agencies. It is too far fetch to say that child labor can be stopped, however, there are prevention methods and ways to keep these children, tobacco workers, and all workers overall, safe from such conditions and provide fair wages and protection. Child labor is a form of slavery, but is worse because it is happening during a time where there are laws and resources to prevent such things from happening, but nothing is being done because of the capitalistic society.

Policy Implications

          According to the CDC, increasing the price of tobacco by 10% would decrease its consumption by 3-5%. This is not a huge jump but little by little this decrease would make a difference, with fewer sales there will be less production and less need for laborers. To reduce current health risks and dangers of working on these farms, there are preventions methods that employers can use. First is to provide health education, informing workers of GTS, provide safety training on all tools that is used for work. Reduce exposure to nicotine by providing workers with protective gears including: gloves, aprons, masks, glasses, boots and socks. Employers can also provide annual doctor visits to ensure safety. These preventions methods are unlikely since it means costing employers more than they are willing to spend. On the government level, labor laws should be strictly enforced. Workers should be encouraged to speak out against their employers, employers and working conditions should be closely monitored to ensure fair treatments to their employees. There should also be a reduction in GTS treatments; make it more affordable for workers to seek medications and help.


Basu, K. (1999). Child labor: Cause, consequence, and cure. Journal of Economic Literature, 37(3), 1083-1119. 

Basu, K., Van, P.H. (1998). The economics of child labor. The American Economic Review,     88(3), 412-427. 

Eldring, L., Nakanyane, S., & Tshoaedi, M. (2000). Child labour in the tobacco growing sector in Africa. With Fafo-report 2000:21. 

Human Rights Watch (2014). Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming. New York: Human Rights Watch.  Retrieved from: 

International Labor Organization (ILO). (2012). What is child labour. Retrieved from 

Lecours, N., Almeida, E. G. G., Abdallah, M. J., & Novotny, E. T. (2011). Environmental health impacts of tobacco farming: A review of the literature. British Medical Journal, 21, 191-196.   

McBride, S. J., Altman, G. D., Klein, M., & White, W. (1998). Green tobacco sickness. British Medical Journal, 7, 294-298. 

Moehling, M. C. (1999). Child labour in the tobacco growing sector in Africa. Exploration in     Economic History, 36(1), 72-106. 

Quandt, S.A., Arcury, T.A., Preisser, J.S., Norton, D., Austin, C. (2000). Migrant farmworkers and green tobacco sickness: New issues for an understudied disease. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 37(3), 307-315. 

U.S. Department of Labor. (2014). Wage and hour division (WHD). Retrieved from


[1] The current production and sale of tobacco will be discussed further in later section.

[2] Green Tobacco Sickness – will be further discussed in the Health Risks section.

[3] Information regarding child labor laws including wages and standards were gathered through reading multiple reports relating to the topic, including: chapters 4 and 5 (pg. 75-97) of the Human Rights Report, chapter 2 (pg. 3-13) from the Report on Youth Labor by the US Department of Labor, and a short article from the US Department of Labor titled Child Labor Requirements in Agricultural Occupations Under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In addition to these reports, Moehling (1999) did a study to see the effect of state child labor laws on children occupation choices. Basu (1999) was read for comparison between child labor rate from past and present. This article also contributed to the knowledge on the increasing concern and rising effort to stop child labor. Various websites were also used for statistics, facts and more information on the topic:;;;
[4] Piece Rate Basis is also known as payment by results. When wages are paid on the basis of the output of the works without considering the time taken to perform the work.