A human rights group on Wednesday released a report calling for state and federal legislation to prohibit anyone under 18 from doing any work that involves touching tobacco.
Generations of Kentuckians helped set and house tobacco on their families' farms as youngsters, a tradition that many remember fondly as fostering a sense of pride, accomplishment and closeness between generations. Farmers also say that most tobacco labor in Kentucky today is done by migrant workers, not the children of farm owners.
But Wednesday's report by Human Rights Watch says tobacco work exposes juveniles to nicotine, pesticides and other irritants. Other risks include using sharp tools such as hatchets and spears; heavy lifting; and working at heights, the report said.
Human Rights Watch urged the repeal of sections in the Fair Labor Standards Act that allow some agricultural employers to avoid paying the minimum wage and overtime.
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It also called on tobacco companies to "implement policies globally prohibiting the use of child labor anywhere in the supply chain," set up internal and third-party monitoring for child labor and penalize violators.
"The U.S. has failed America's families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms," Margaret Wurth, one of the report's authors, said in a news release.
"The Obama administration should endorse regulations that make it clear that work on tobacco farms is hazardous for children, and Congress should enact laws to give child farmworkers the same protections as all other working children."
The Kentucky Farm Bureau responded to the report with a statement noting that working on their parents' farms helps prepare children to take over the farms when they grow up.
"Youth working in an agricultural setting is a normal and expected part of growing up on a farm in Kentucky," the Farm Bureau said. "Farm families often introduce their children to such chores, not only as a way to teach them about caring for the land or animals ... but also as a direct path to prepare and pass the farm into capable hands some day in the future.
"It is difficult to believe that any parents — and especially a Kentucky farm family — would risk the safety or health of their own children by setting them to a task that they are not properly trained to execute or place them in harm's way."
Some farmers also said Wednesday that on today's farm, hired migrant workers perform much of the work that farmer's children did in the past.
"It's not family farms much anymore," said Martin Richards, director of the Kentucky Farm Alliance. "I stopped raising tobacco in 2006, and even then, the last couple years were relying on migrant labor."
Even so, Richards said he remembers helping out with tobacco on the farm as a positive experience growing up.
"It was a family affair, a community affair," he said. "We kind of went from farm to farm during cutting and housing. We all helped each other out. That's the way it was."
Burley tobacco producer Hampton "Hoppy" Henton agreed there are risks for tobacco workers, such as "green tobacco sickness," caused by nicotine from wet tobacco leaves that is absorbed through the skin. But he contended that because of the way burley tobacco is housed, green tobacco sickness is less of a risk for juvenile tobacco workers in Kentucky than it is overseas or in other parts of the U.S.
"In Kentucky there's probably less likelihood of this happening than in the flue-cured regions just because of the way the leaves are removed from the plants there," he said. "The company I sell with now requires us to follow guidelines to avoid green tobacco sickness. And in our contracts we agree not to hire child labor."
Human Rights Watch said its report was based on interviews with 141 children between 7 and 17 years old who worked in tobacco in 2012 and 2013 in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. It interviewed 46 children in Kentucky.
"Tobacco companies should get children out of hazardous work on tobacco farms and support efforts to provide them with alternative educational and vocational opportunities," Wurth said in the news release.
Three-quarters of the children interviewed said they had experienced symptoms such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, skin rashes, dizziness and eye irritation while working in tobacco. Some of those are symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning or green tobacco sickness.
A 16-year-old girl who worked on farms surrounding Lexington described becoming ill in the field, saying "it happens when you're out in the sun. You want to throw up. And you drink water because you're so thirsty, but the water makes you feel worse. You throw up right there when you're cutting, but you just keep cutting."
Other young workers reported breathing problems while stripping tobacco and muscle aches and pain from repetitive motions such as using a hoe to cut weeds, topping tobacco and hanging sticks of tobacco in barns.
One 17-year-old lost two fingers while using a push mower that had been suspended on a metal stand to trim seedlings.
The names of the children were changed in the report. Most of those interviewed were of Hispanic descent, and most were working for hire when school was not in session. Just nine of the children interviewed were working on family farms.
It is not known how many juveniles work on tobacco farms in the U.S.