WASHINGTON — Thirty-five House Democrats are urging the Obama administration to prohibit children from working on tobacco farms, citing concerns about ill health effects.
The lawmakers, led by Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., made their plea in a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday.
In 2012, the Labor Department withdrew a proposed rule that would have banned children under 16 from several kinds of agriculture work, including tobacco farms. In their letter, the lawmakers, all Democrats, urged a narrower ban that would deal solely with children on tobacco farms.
The letter doesn't specify an age limit, but a spokesman for Cicilline said he and other lawmakers would prefer the ban apply to children under 18. Cicilline has a bill in Congress that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to ban kids under 18 from jobs where they have direct contact with tobacco plants or leaves.
The lawmakers cited a Human Rights Watch report issued in May which said nearly three-quarters of the children it interviewed reported vomiting, nausea and headaches while working on tobacco farms. Those symptoms are consistent with nicotine poisoning often called green tobacco sickness, which occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants. The report was based on interviews with more than 140 children working on farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where a majority of the country's tobacco is grown.
"Children working in tobacco are among the nation's most vulnerable and we must do more to protect them," wrote the lawmakers, who called the Human Rights Watch report "deeply troubling."
The Labor Department declined comment. Some of the large tobacco companies, such as Altria Group Inc. and Philip Morris International Inc., also didn't respond to requests for comment Tuesday. In May, Philip Morris International CEO Andre Calantzopoulos said the Human Rights Watch report had uncovered "serious child labor abuses that should not occur on any farm, anywhere."
An Altria spokesman said at the time that restricting tobacco work to people 18 and over "is really contrary to a lot of the current practices that are in place in the U.S. and is at odds in these communities where family farming is really a way of life."
U.S. agriculture labor laws allow children to work longer hours at younger ages and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry, according to the Human Rights Watch report. With their parent's permission, children as young as 12 can be hired for unlimited hours outside of school hours on a farm of any size.
"Working in tobacco fields can have harmful consequences on children, and it's time child protection laws and regulations caught up with our values as a nation," Cicilline said in a statement.
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