Author: Mitch Schuster, ASH Policy and Communications Intern

The tobacco industry is frequently criticized for its product’s harmful effects on global health, financial security, and manipulative marketing tactics. However, one of the tobacco industry’s least recognized impacts on global populations has been the exploitation of child laborers working on tobacco farms across the globe.According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 152 million children worldwide have been compelled to join the labor force as of 2017, with nearly 71% working in agriculture. While the prevalence of child labor had been gradually decreasing since 2000, in order to meet global tobacco demands during the pandemic. Approximately 9 million more children were deemed to be at risk of joining the global child labor force when compared to ILO projections of child labor prevalence in 2021 conducted prior to the pandemic. However, it can be difficult to truly measure the number of children working in the tobacco industry because they often work on an unofficial basis and are not registered as employees.

The prevalence of children in the tobacco supply chain has several harmful effects on their development, health, and livelihood.

While the majority of tobacco was once grown in America, where labor standards are more strict, large tobacco conglomerates have almost entirely shifted their production to developing countries in the Global South, where nearly 85% of tobacco production now takes place.

These countries are more desirable for tobacco production because the industry can exploit the tenant farming system, in which farmers are contracted to complete nearly all of the labor involved in tobacco farming but receive an extremely meager portion of the profits, often as low as $224 for nearly 10 months of labor.

Children are often brought into the tobacco farming workforce because many of the nations that depend on tobacco production and exportation as a major part of their economy have been hesitant to strictly enforce regulations on child labor that reduce their ability to expand their economies with revenue from the tobacco industry. Many countries are reliant on tobacco exports for a significant percentage of their GDP; tobacco exports in nations such as Malawi and Zimbabwe comprise between 23-60% of their export earnings.

One of the primary costs of the prevalence of children in the workforce has been the denial of educational opportunities. Many children working in tobacco farming are forced to prioritize work over school, with countries that heavily produce tobacco such as Malawi seeing only a third of students complete primary education, as they are then drawn into a cycle of continuous work in an exploitative tenant farming system that is difficult to break out of without a proper education.

Additionally, young children spending long hours on tobacco farms have significant potential of exposure to harmful chemicals in fertilizers, pesticides, and wet tobacco leaves, which can make them susceptible to daily levels of nicotine intake consistent with smoking nearly 50 cigarettes and causing green tobacco sickness.

Green tobacco sickness, which is characterized by nausea, dehydration, and vomiting, is considered to pose an increased risk to children due to their limited physical development and reduced tolerance to nicotine, as well as the lax safety standards in many of the countries where child tobacco labor is common.

Long term effects of tobacco exposure during youth have been found to include a higher risk of cancer, reproductive health issues, mood disorders, and permanent neurological damage.

While many large tobacco conglomerates have highlighted programs to ostensibly reduce child labor in their supply chains, including funding nonprofits such as the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-Growing Foundation (ECLT), critics state that the efforts of these organizations are aimed more at improving the public image of tobacco companies by publishing positive individual- focused stories rather than addressing structural issues contributing to the prevalence of child labor in the tobacco industry.

Large tobacco conglomerates also attempt to escape liability for their use of child labor by utilizing several intermediaries that separate distributors from the farming that generates their product.

Child labor within the tobacco industry continues to be a major issue, and will not be solved without a concerted international effort to address the conditions that force children into sacrificing their youth and health to produce tobacco.

Learn more about this crucial issue from our partners at Unfairtobacco>