As early as 1 B.C., there is evidence of tobacco cultivation among Native Americans.  In addition to smoking, many tribes used dried tobacco for medicinal purposes and as offerings in rituals and ceremonies. According to the Milwaukee Public Museum, dry tobacco was used as an offering to solicit spirits, to give thanks, and to assure good weather, safety, and a bountiful harvest.

Tobacco cultivation among European explorers and colonizers sustained the fledgling economy in the United States, and has since become endemic to almost every country in the world. The World Health Organization estimated that, as of 2015, 1.1 billion people used tobacco products worldwide.

The most vulnerable members of tobacco-growing societies are of primary concern.” – ILO

Farmworker Housing near a Tobacco Field in North Carolina. Photo Credit: AFOP 2015

According to the CDC factsheet on Economic Trends in Tobacco, The United States is the fourth leading tobacco producer, and in 2018, U.S. farms cultivated more than 533 million pounds of tobacco, with Kentucky and North Carolina accounting for 70% of production.

A Call to the Fields

In 2008, the Fair Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) Founder and President and former seasonal farmworker, Baldemar Velasquez, journaled about his week-long stay at a labor camp in North Carolina during the peak of summer. “I feel compelled to experience what these workers go through in what is considered the worse [sic], the riskiest, and the dirtiest of the jobs.” He described the day to day routine for farmworkers working in intense heat and the camaraderie of his fellow workers. “Soaked in sweat,” Velazquez worked in the tobacco fields from 7 am through the day until 5 or 6. The other workers told him, “of men they worked with in recent years, and how they got so sick that they had to leave by the first day. They would come to the camp after doing this work and be vomiting green stuff, and they would get scared thinking they were going to die and leave right away in a panic.”

Farmworkers in the tobacco fields face heat exhaustion, which “can be compounded by the nicotine”. Workers can absorb nicotine through their skin when handling tobacco plants and from the morning dew and rain that collects on the leaves and saturates clothing, causing Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS).

Symptoms of GTS include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty eating and sleeping
Our Path Forward
Harvested tobacco dries in the eaves of a barn. Photo Credit AFOP 2015

It has long been a position of AFOP’s that tobacco cultivation is a particularly hazardous occupation and, as such, should be regulated more strictly than other agricultural work.  Unfortunately, this is not the case right now in the U.S.  Right now, any child can work in tobacco as long as they are 12 years old, or even younger with parental consent.  This means that children who are years away from ever being allowed to smoke a cigarette have nicotine levels as high as that of a habitual smoker.  And yet, when a change to the Hazardous Occupations was attempted in 2012 that would have banned tobacco work for minors, (misinformed) public outcry resulted in the proposed rule being rescinded.  It has not been proposed again since.

Advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), and AFOP’s own Children in the Fields Campaign (CIFC) have been working tirelessly – petitioning lawmakers as well as the general public to recognize the horror of child labor in tobacco and to end it immediately.  The Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act has been introduced and re-introduced in multiple sessions of Congress over the past decade, and yet it has never gained much traction.  We have even asked for a ban from the president, to no avail.  Informal surveys reveal that public sentiment is on our side.  When it comes to child labor in America, banning child labor in tobacco is the most common-sense change we can possibly make. 

Child labor in tobacco is not a necessity; it is a travesty.  Let’s put an end to it now.

A porta-potty sits adjacent to irrigation equipment in a tobacco field. Photo Credit AFOP.

Additional Resources:

AFOP: Child Labor in Tobacco

AFOP: Poisoned by Tobacco Harvests


Children in the fields

OSHA: Green Tobacco Sickness

The Green Hazard

COVID outbreak on tobacco farm

Articles on GTS

Link to short speech about tobacco workers

Link to interview with Baldemar Velazquez