Monday, May 26, 2014
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the Surgeon General’s first report on the health consequences of tobacco. Since that report was published in 1964, more than 20 million Americans have died prematurely as a result of cigarette smoking. The annual total economic costs to the U.S. economy are now estimated to be $289 billion. This year’s Surgeon General’s report, The Health Consequences of Smoking--50 Years of Progress, contains some good news. The prevalence of cigarette smoking among adults has declined from 42% in 1965 to 18% in 2012 (though progress has slowed in recent years). And, perhaps more important, we know how to solve this problem; as the Surgeon General’s report details, “[t]he evidence is sufficient to conclude that there are diverse tobacco control measures of proven efficacy at the population and individual levels.
The harms of tobacco use are well known by anyone with interest in health care issues. Less well known are the harmful effects of tobacco production on the many children who work on tobacco farms in the United States today. In a report released earlier this month -- Tobacco's Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, Human Rights Watch found that:
Children working on tobacco farms in the United States are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers. Child tobacco workers often labor 50 or 60 hours a week in extreme heat, use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads, and climb into the rafters of barns several stories tall, risking serious injuries and falls.
The investigation also found that many children involved reported symptoms “consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.” In non-agricultural workplaces, labor laws prohibit the employment of children under 18 years old in hazardous occupations (such as excavation, manufacturing explosives, mining, and operating many types of power-driven equipment). Yet the same protections do not exist for children working on farms. As the Human Rights Watch investigation uncovered, this is not just a labor issue, but a health issue and a children’s rights issue. It merits much more attention.
In the United States, children under 18 years old are not permitted to buy tobacco products. We draw this line, as we do in many other areas of the law, because we recognize that children are entitled to special protections. The harmful consequences of tobacco use demand that we make every effort to prevent children from taking up smoking. Similarly, the dangers of tobacco production should convince us to end the practice of using children on tobacco farms.
- Professor Jonathan Todres