Green Tobacco Sickness and Child Labour in the Tobacco Industry

              Child labor in tobacco harvesting. Picture from:            Child labour tobacco 2

Child labor in tobacco harvesting. Pictures from: [/caption]<


Not many physicians in the west have heard of Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), although doctors who work in emergency rooms in US states where tobacco is farmed frequently encounter Green Tobacco Sickness during tobacco plant harvesting season, and are quite familiar with its often-terrifying symptoms of nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headache, dizziness, weakness, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing and confusion.

Green Tobacco Sickness is a form of acute nicotine poisoning that is caused by nicotine that has seeped from tobacco leaves into rainwater, dew, even sweat, covering the leaves. When tobacco is harvested under wet or moist conditions, for example in the early morning, nicotine is absorbed through the skin of workers- many of whom are child labourers- who harvest the leaves by hand. In a single day, a labourer can absorb as much nicotine as there is in 40 cigarettes. This level of nicotine is frequently toxic to workers, especially children, and can be extremely distressing and terrifying to those afflicted.

It’s not clear exactly how many tobacco farm workers suffer from this distressing illness, and how frequently it afflicts them, but we can say with certainty that hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of children and adults suffer frequently from awful bouts of Green Tobacco Sickness, which can last for several days.

Few studies have been done, because the same attitudes and systems of neglect that put these children into child labour in the first place also mean that most children will not receive medical care during an episode, and will have to suffer and wait for the symptoms to go away, or be forced by their boss to continue to work.

There is no pity or recourse for these children, so if you smoke please think of them with every puff of your cigarette, cigar or waterpipe or whatever it is you puff on.

One study of tobacco harvesters in North Carolina, USA, showed that 44 out of 182 tobacco farmworkers there (most of whom were minority workers) had one or more episodes of Green Tobacco Sickness in just a ten-week period.

What is clear is that child labour, and its consequent abuse of a child’s human rights, is common in tobacco production, and millions of children across the world are working in tobacco fields and suffering regularly from Green Tobacco Sickness. Not only this, but these children often don’t get paid, or are paid a ridiculously low wage, for their laborious work; and the work that they do often prevents them from getting an education and living the healthy, normal life that every child on Earth deserves.

In Indonesia alone, for example, well over a million precious kids aged 10 to 17 work full time in agriculture. Thousands of these child labourers work on tobacco farms, under conditions that break international children’s rights laws of the United Nations and World Health Organisation.

Some of the kids are even paid with cigarettes for their gruelling work! And it isn’t just Indonesia where the tobacco industry commits what is nothing short of child abuse: it occurs in many countries where tobacco production is significant.

It’s quite clear that Green Tobacco Sickness affects  thousands upon thousands of tobacco workers, many of them young children. Yet, I checked out what British American Tobacco (BAT) have to say on their web site about this horrible illness. As with all of the issues of human misery that their products cause, they have a tendency to downplay the human suffering for which they are ultimately responsible. To quote BAT:

“There are credible reports of GTS being experienced by tobacco workers. However, there is no credible evidence to indicate that GTS can have long-term effects…..”

“Credible reports”? “Credible evidence” ? Ask the doctors who see these patients or the patients themselves if these “reports” are simply credible or if they are widespread, frequent and well understood and studied! Does an illness have to have “long-term effects” to be unpleasant and harmful? And what about the physical injuries and the social and psychological effects from the hard days that child labourers put into tobacco labour, not to mention the long term effects from keeping these precious children away from a proper education and from having a healthy, normal life that every dear child in the World deserves?

The hardened, merciless executives at British American Tobacco and other big tobacco companies, whose concerns for precious children are obliterated by their greed for financial profits, may not be particularly bothered by the plight of these impoverished children, but I wonder how those who work in the offices of tobacco companies would feel if it were their children, or their grandchildren, who were suffering regularly from Green Tobacco Sickness. As one poor unfortunate child labourer said, after suffering an episode of Green Tobacco Sickness, “I thought I would die.”

References and Web Sites:

Arcury TA, Quandt SA, Preisser JS, Norton D. The incidence of green tobacco sickness among Latino farmworkers, J Occup Environ Med. 2001; 43(7):601-9.

McBride JS, Altman DG, Klein M, White W. Green tobacco sickness. Tob Control. 1998; 7(3):294-8.

McKnight, R.H. and Spiller, H.A., Green tobacco sickness in children and adolescents, Public Health Rep. 2005; 120(6): 602–606.


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