Used to be when you lighted up that Marlboro, you knew you were helping the tobacco growers in the United States. Today about 85% of worldwide production is global and many countries use child labor to help in the production process. One such country is Malawi, which has the highest number of child laborers in Africa. Although the country signed the UN and International Labor Organization and have their own framework barring the employment of children under 14, the economy is heavily dependent on tobacco which makes up 70% of its export earnings, so they turn a blind eye to children in the fields. What does this mean for child laborers?
Children as young as five work every day with their parents in the fields, putting in long, 12 hour days. Work comes first, and many don’t attend school or may attend sporadically. Workers don’t wear protective clothing in the fields, and it is estimated that the laborers absorb up to 54 milligrams of dissolved nicotine a day, about the same as 50 cigarettes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), many of the estimated 80,000 child tobacco laborers in Malawi suffer from a disease called green tobacco sickness or nicotine poisoning. Symptoms include severe headaches, abdominal cramps, muscle weakness, breathing difficulties, diarrhea, vomiting, high blood pressure, and fluctuation in heart rate.
Children are not only exploited physically, but financially as well. Many never receive a salary since they “help” their parents in the field. Other kids may receive an average of $0.25 for their long work days. Children have been lured into working with promises of making good money, but at the end of the season they only get an old sweater. Some estates follow the child labor regulations, but many don’t in order to make a higher profit. Those caught often face a $34 fine.
More than 98% of Malawi’s tobacco is exported. Two US-based tobacco buyers, Universal Corporation and Alliance One International, buy more than 90% of Malawi’s exported crop. They then resell it to Philip Morris (Marlboro) and British American Tobacco (Lucky Strike), two of the world’s biggest cigarette manufacturers. Cigarettes tobacco is blended from many different tobaccos, and Malawi tobacco is found in almost every cigarette smoked in the west.
British American Tobacco (BAT) and other tobacco companies all have anti-child labor policies in place and say they do not employ children, but they admit using intermediaries to purchase tobacco, making it difficult to trace the tobacco to make sure all farmers follow the rules. Going after farmers for child labor violations would increase the cost of the tobacco. If children were replaced with adults who were paid the minimum wage, production costs would increase $10 million per year in just Malawi alone. BAT is a founding member of the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT) and claims the foundation has been successfully supporting projects since 2002, spending almost US$7 million. While the foundation makes BAT feel good, they and the other tobacco giants have made huge profits through unpaid child labor costs, estimated to be $1.2 billion.
You are probably aware of the health hazards that smoking causes you and those around you. You have made the choice to smoke. The children who are forced to work long days in the tobacco field don’t have a choice. They are working under unhealthy conditions to help support their families. The tobacco industry is aware of the child labor situation and has made the choice to ignore it in the face of huge profits.
Everyday in the U.S. 3,000 kids start smoking to replace the 1,200 who die from smoking related illnesses. They are making a choice without understanding the consequences of their actions. The Florida Statewide Tobacco Prevention and Intervention Training course is a great way for Florida educators with a current DOE certificate to help their students make educated decisions regarding tobacco. This free, on-line course is available 24/7 and provides up to 60 teacher in-service credits as approved by your district. Make a difference in the lives of your students regarding tobacco. Check out our site at tobaccopreventiontraining.org