Tucked into Page A9 in Monday's San Diego Union-Tribune was a three-sentence news story reporting that in the southern African country of Malawi, children who work on tobacco farms, in addition to working long hours for very little pay, are being subjected to nicotine poisoning.
If Americans needed yet another good reason to stop smoking, there it is.
The story was based on a report released this week by the London-based human-rights group Plan International, which interviewed 44 Malawian teens, age 12 through 18, about their experiences working full-time on tobacco farms during the 2007-2008 season. The kids described work that's too difficult for people their size, 12-hour days (at the least) with few breaks and average pay of 18 cents a day. They also reported being hit, tormented and raped by supervisorsThe kids also complained of symptoms that researchers attribute to green tobacco sickness, which is caused by absorption of nicotine through the skin when wet tobacco leaves are handled. In adults, the sickness “causes nausea, vomiting, dizziness and, in severe cases, dehydration,” according to a story in March in The Wall Street Journal. Studies say the effects are worse in children, due to their body size and lack of tolerance to nicotine. The Plan International report also quotes a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, as saying nicotine causes changes in brain structure and function in children and adolescents. The report claims that the children are exposed to an amount of nicotine equivalent to 50 cigarettes a day.
Tobacco production has shifted dramatically to developing countries. These days, the United States produces only about 6 percent of the world's tobacco. Much of the rest comes from China, Brazil, India and Malawi. Malawi, in particular, where the low estimate has 78,000 children working on tobacco farms, depends greatly on tobacco production as an economic engine; it accounts for roughly 70 percent of the nation's economy. It's grown largely on estate farms that are divided into tenant farms, which rely on both adult and child labor. The kids say they work to help their families make ends meet and to pay school fees. Sometimes, they work under their own quotas, being docked when they don't produce enough; sometimes, they work to help a parent meet his or her quota.
The Plan International study doesn't discuss which tobacco companies profit from Malawian child labor. Some news reports on the study quote spokespeople from Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco as acknowledging buying Malawian tobacco but saying they oppose child labor. Indeed, both companies have written policies against the practice, but there seems to be no reliable enforcement. A British American spokesperson admitted that the company does not check the farms that provide tobacco to third-party suppliers.
Those two companies are responsible for the cigarette brands Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Merit, Parliament, Benson & Hedges, L&M, Chesterfield, Lark, Cambridge, Basic, Dunhill, Kent, Lucky Strike, Vogue, Rothmans, Peter Stuyvesant, Winfield, John Player, State Express 555 and Viceroy. British American owns 42 percent of Reynolds American Inc., which produces the Camel, Winston, Salem, Kool, Pall Mall, Doral, Misty and Capri brands and owns the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, which produces the popular Natural American Spirit brand.
Apparently, it's not only in Malawi that child labor is used in tobacco production. It's also been “widespread” in Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and the United States, according to a 2001 World Health Organization report titled “Tobacco & the Rights of the Child,” which says that in Brazil alone, 53,000 children work on tobacco farms.
We can't tell you for sure if the cigarettes you smoke come courtesy of harmful child labor; it's up to you, we suppose, whether or not you want to take that chance. In addition to the fact that cigarettes are deadly, their makers have purposefully made them more addictive, marketed them specifically to children and brazenly lied about their harmful effects. All that should be enough to make anyone quit, but if you need another compelling reason, the image of a weak, dizzy, vomiting 14-year-old lying in some dilapidated house in southern Africa or eastern South America should provide it.(What do you think? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Would you like to your online comment to be considered for publication in our print edition? Include your true full name and neighborhood of residence.