tobacco child labor By Peter Galuszka

The humidity was wet as a warm washcloth one July morning at 4 a.m. some 43 years ago. I was an 18-year-old cub reporter working college summers at the Washington (N.C.) Daily News, a small afternoon newspaper on the fringe of North Carolina’s bright leaf tobacco belt.

About a dozen youngsters, maybe 10 years old, sleepily sauntered on the school bus used by the state employment agency hired by tobacco growers. The children were heading out to the tobacco fields where they’d spend the day working tobacco leaves.

They’d cut off the top of the flowering buds and eventually “prime” or cut bottom leaves first so they could be tied to sticks for placement in a hot, flue-heated barn. The point is to get the best smoking flavor but also the optimum amount of nicotine, which, of course, is the deadly and carcinogenic chemical that gives tobacco cigarettes their addictive kick.

Apparently, those kids in Bertie County N.C., might have thought the pin money they got from their hard field work might buy them candy or a movie ticket or a Coke at Hardees. But regularly handling tobacco leaves, it was later found out, exposes the kids to about 50 cigarettes-worth a day of nicotine and that causes the “Green Tobacco Sickness” which can involve nausea, vomiting and other maladies.

Using U.S. child labor to harvest tobacco is a time-honored tradition in the tobacco belt, especially in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. But it is a dangerous business and young people shouldn’t be doing it, notes the Human Rights Watch.

Virginia is actually a fairly small producer of tobacco – only 7 percent – and only has about 895 tobacco farms that hire seasonally. But they rely on child labor and much of it does not involve alien workers.

Nicotine’s dangers have been highlighted more recently in electronic cigarettes which are a growing craze and now will be lightly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. One issue is that the e-cigs or “vapes” have small containers that hold nicotine although the user doesn’t get the other bad stuff in the smoke. The right amount of nicotine can be fatal if ingested by a child which is a concern if e-cigs are somehow broken apart if children play with them.

In the tobacco fields, the kids get into nicotine when they handle the leaves, which they do for hours at a time. There have been proposals to restrict working in tobacco fields to kids older than 16.

But guess who but the kibosh on that? That socialist Barack Obama, that’s who. His administration announced there would be no regulations on child labor in tobacco fields because of protests from tobacco growers.

Down South, some traditions never change.

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6 responses to “The Perils of Child Labor in Tobacco”

  1. larryg Avatar

    Helped my grand daddy harvest tobacco every summer for a few years.

    it was nasty work.

    when you cut tobacco stalks they “bleed” a sticky substance that irritates the hell out of skin.

    You either wear long sleeves and pants and gloves are you come home in the evening with hives.. all over.

    ironically – corn was not much better… less sticky but more rough leaves – not the soft kind you see in the stores for corn on the cob – but the dry stalks you see stacked in the fields for animal feed.

    Tobacco was Grand Dad’s “cash”. They grew everything they could to feed themselves from tomatoes to potatoes to pigs and chickens but some things – like sugar and salt had to be purchased… and vehicles eventually wore out and needed to be replaced.

    then there were “fun” times when we’d go with them into the woods to find “bee” trees to restock the honey supply.

    it was great fun and we’d all return covered with bee sting bumps…!


    ah those were the days… GrandDad was a racist – typical for that time although he did not know what the word meant… there were white folks and “darkies”….

  2. As a reporter with the Martinsville Bulletin, I spent one day working dawn to dusk pulling tobacco. Some of the hardest work I ever did — boy, was my back sore from bending over and yanking off those leaves! The way I figure it, kids, being shorter, could do the job a lot easier. I don’t recall feeling any nicotine-related symptoms, although maybe I would have if I’d worked more than one day.

    Question: Can people reduce exposure to the nicotine by wearing gloves? Surely they can. Wouldn’t that be preferable than a blanket ban against “child labor”?

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I would think that the gloves thing was tried and failed to prevent dangers long ago. And Larryg says he wore gloves yet there’s still a problem.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    I wonder what would happen to a parent in Virginia’s urban or suburban areas who gave their 10 year old child 50 cigarettes a day to smoke and strongly encouraged the kid to smoke them? Something tells me that the local police and/or the local child welfare agency would be called.

    So, why is it acceptable for little kids in rural Virginia to harvest tobacco and ingest the equivalent of 50 cigarettes worth of nicotine every day?

    Sounds like child abuse to me.

    1. larryg Avatar

      re: ” So, why is it acceptable for little kids in rural Virginia to harvest tobacco and ingest the equivalent of 50 cigarettes worth of nicotine every day?”

      to earn their own way and stop sucking subsidies from NoVa?

  5. […] on May 19, 2014 by Peter Galuszka| 5 […]

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