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U.S. Opinions: Washington

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Tobacco, labor and kids

From an editorial in Monday’s Washington Post:

Growing tobacco has been a big business in the South since well before the United States was founded – and the rules governing child labor in the industry seem about as archaic.

Unlike in most of the rest of the economy, child labor on farms is lightly regulated, including in tobacco fields. The result, a Human Rights Watch report last week detailed, is sometimes-disgusting conditions for children and teenagers engaged in some particularly nasty agricultural labor.

In interviewing 141 juvenile workers who have experience on U.S. tobacco farms, investigators found that nearly three-fourths reported getting sick, many with symptoms of “green tobacco sickness,” a malady known to strike tobacco workers that is consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. These children, ages 7 to 17, described days-long headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Some continued laboring.

Though the immediate symptoms of green tobacco sickness wear off, the long-term health effects aren’t clear. It seems clear that these children and teens absorbed significant amounts of nicotine, and there is evidence that the chemical stunts adolescent brain development.

The Labor Department attempted to tighten its rules a few years ago, restricting children under 16 from working in tobacco farming. But after an outcry from rural interests, the Obama administration pulled the proposal.

Now that President Barack Obama has been re-elected and no longer needs to court Southern swing states, his administration should reverse its pathetic retreat.

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