News and Events

Should Kids Work Tobacco?
Tracy DeCubellis, MS
August 19, 2015

My great-grandfather was a tobacco farmer. My grandfather was also a tobacco farmer. My father was born and raised on my grandfather’s farm where the tobacco was grown and harvested.  Tobacco has always been part of our family culture. In fact, as a child I saw that every adult in my family smoked, or was a former smoker.  Car rides and family gatherings were smoke-filled affairs.  Tobacco was a way of life for my family, and still is for many of my relatives.   Tobacco is culturally accepted in many rural locations, just as in my family, especially in communities where tobacco is grown. 

The United States is one of the top five tobacco producing countries in the world. Many children in the United States will work in tobacco fields and barns every year.  Florida is not a top tobacco producing state. However, the first reports of illness among children and adolescents caused by nicotine exposure during farm tasks were recorded in Florida back in 1970 (McKnight & Spiller, 2005).  This illness is called Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS).  It can be characterized by a variety of symptoms including, but not limited to, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, grand mal seizures, weakness, headache, and rash at the sight of contact with tobacco leaves (McKnight & Spiller, 2005).  
Child Labor Infographic

An article called, There is No Crying in a Tobacco Field, describes the author’s experiences growing up, leaving school, and working in tobacco fields throughout the spring and summer during her early adolescence in North Carolina.  Her article is nostalgic as she explains all of the lessons she learned doing hard, dangerous work at such a young age.  This may be one of the main reasons that children are still working in tobacco fields today. Besides financial reasons, perhaps parents believe it teaches children to have a work ethic.  Unfortunately, like the author of the tobacco nostalgia piece, many children also experience GTS as a result of coming into contact with nicotine in tobacco.

One of the things we did not whine about was “baccer sickness.” The nausea, vomiting, and       dizziness were very common in tobacco virgins. It was expected… (Hill, 2013, p. 97)

The author does go on to recognize the research about GTS and the inherent dangers kids face when they work tobacco.  However, she believes the work ethic she learned makes up for the negative health impacts nicotine had on her body as a child. 

This brings up a few questions. Is it ethical for adults to put children in a position to work in fields exposing them to hazardous nicotine that frequently causes GTS?  Are the children getting sick with GTS really learning good work ethics? Are they really learning that it’s normal and expected for a worker to get sick or injured on the job and if they want to keep that job they should not whine or cry about it?  What responsibility do the adults in a community have to keep our kids from being exposed to dangerous substances that will hurt them?

Besides coming in contact with nicotine from tobacco leaves, many children report being exposed to pesticides while working in tobacco fields. In a survey of U.S. children working in tobacco fields, more than half of the children reported seeing pesticides being sprayed on, or near, the fields where they were working (Human Rights Watch, 2014). The child tobacco workers also reported that they could smell and feel the pesticides as they drifted in the air toward the areas where they were working (Human Rights Watch, 2014). 

The mix of nicotine and pesticides can be particularly damaging according to a recent study of adult tobacco farmers.  Farmers were followed throughout the growing season to determine if there were any negative effects of nicotine and pesticides on the farmers’ DNA.  The researchers found that DNA damage did occur in the blood cells of tobacco farmers (Da Silva et al., 2014).  They also found that damage to the DNA of farmers occurred during all parts of the growing season (Da Silva et al., 2014).  Because even the adult farmers showed GTS symptoms, they recommended further study into the possible DNA damage that may occur when a farmer is exposed to those high levels of nicotine (Da Silva et al., 2014).  Since children are still growing and developing, what does this exposure do to their health?  Is it possible that once the GTS symptoms dissipate, there is still DNA damage left behind?

Nostalgia or Human Rights Issue?

I recently heard someone say he thought all young people should have to work in a tobacco field at some point during their lives.  People also say we’ve always done things this way and I grew up picking tobacco, so why change?  Do we say that about car seats for our babies?  We didn’t have car seats or anti-texting while driving laws in the recent past, but we changed.  People used to smoke in airplanes and restaurants while everyone else was getting nauseated from the secondhand smoke.  Should we go back to those days, too?  The reason we change is because we get new information and we want our lives to be better. We also want our children to have better lives.  Maybe it is time to consider that kids working tobacco is not healthy and we need to make a change.

Tracy DeCubellis has worked with the QuitDoc Foundation as the Community Health Advocate in Gilchrist County since 2008. She is also the Facilitator of the Tobacco Free Partnership of Gilchrist County.