Farm Workers & Tobacco Hazards


You’ve probably heard about the hazards of smoking. For people in my generation — twenty- and young thirty-somethings, seeing someone smoke (tobacco) is pretty rare — at least in the last two regions of the country I’ve lived in. However, I grew up in the south, in North Carolina, which specializes in tobacco production. I remember friends in middle and high school smoking, because they thought it made them cool, or because it was something they could do to irritate their parents, or because their parents did and they could easily get their hands on cigarettes. The reasons don’t particularly matter to me.

Tobacco Plants

For me, the smell of cigarette (much less cigar) smoke has always made me feel ill. My mom’s best friend when I was a wee one, smoked and drank incredibly sweet tea, and I associate the two strongly now, to the point where I often can’t stomach tea sweetened in any form (confession: as a kid I loved sweet tea). The same was true in my grandparents’ house (they smoked until the year I was born and continued to drink sweet tea the rest of their lives).  To say you don’t like sweet tea in the south is a bit of a sin. Fortunately, I left.

Because my parents were diligent, I was exposed to a relatively small amount of second-hand smoke except for when we were around my mom’s best friend, for which I’m grateful — especially as new reports are continually released noting the specific (and often higher) risks of second-hand smoke over actually smoking.

So here’s the thing I’m struggling with. No one who smokes really wants another reason to feel preached at about why they shouldn’t smoke. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do, and to ask you to do also. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch highlighted a story called “The Hidden Victims of Tobacco,” which was published in The Huffington Post. You should really read the article (it’s short), but in case you don’t want to or don’t have time, let me highlight a few key points:

  • Children (including those under age 12) who are working in tobacco fields are getting sprayed by chemicals, and report symptoms such as these: “‘My legs hurt, my head hurts… I feel dizzy and then my nose is bleeding.'”
  • Tobacco is absorbed through the skin, especially in hot, humid conditions (which North Carolina during tobacco season most definitely is)
  • Farmer workers in the tobacco industry, as well as in many other Big Ag (and even smaller agriculture) operations, are often paid less than minimum wage
  • Children, since they are still developing, are more likely to be affected negatively by absorption of tobacco through the skin, as well as by the chemicals that are sprayed on tobacco plants

Tobacco — more specifically — nicotine is addictive and, on some level, I understand how difficult that makes it to quit. But I’ve heard a number of people say that they don’t feel as addicted to nicotine as they do to the social culture around smoking and smoke breaks. These same people often express that they get why they shouldn’t smoke around others, and in my experience apologize profusely for the act of smoking around me (and other nonsmokers). But the outright abuse of children who harvest tobacco should be just another list in the already long list of reasons to quit smoking (or not start at all).

So, here’s what I’m asking you to do. I’m asking you to speak up and speak out against the abuses being perpetrated in tobacco fields. This campaign isn’t  as easy as Label it Yourself (LIY), with it’s campaign to label foods that contain GMOs, because packages of tobacco products are treated as a controlled substance. I’m asking you to take this Anti-Tobacco Label (designed for 1.5 in x 1.5 in stick-on labels) and label the cigarette cartons you can get your hands on (i.e. – if you know people who smoke), the packages of dip, anything else containing tobacco from one of the big tobacco companies. It’s a PDF file, so you should be able to open it with relatively no problem.

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