Child labour in Africa’s tobacco fields: Tobacco companies are to blame

Child labour in Africa’s tobacco fields: Tobacco companies are to blame

International Labour Organization (ILO) photo of child labourer on a tobacco farm

The following article is based on a version of an article I wrote recently for the Kenyan NGO publication, Reject Newspaper, an African Woman and Child Feature Service (awcfs):


( — According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) World Report on Child Labour 2015, 168 million children worldwide are engaged in child labor, and a half of these children are exposed to hazardous conditions. Subsaharan Africa, in particular, has the highest prevalence of child labour in the world and in many areas it is getting worse, not better.

In the 1998/99 Kenyan Child Labour Survey, 1.9 million Kenyan children (one in every six children between 5 and 17 years old) were working, making up 14.4% of Kenya’s workforce. Many of these child labourers were working in the fishing and agriculture industries, especially on family farms and other enterprises. Whilst Kenya has made significant advances in dealing with child labour and has made progress in implementing and enforcing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which Kenya ratified in 1990, and the Kenyan Children Act (2001), there is still a great deal to be done: child labour affects way too many precious children across the country.

A 2012 report of a study of child labourers in nine locations in Nairobi Province and Nyanza Province noted that over a half of these children began working when they were between 5 and 9 years old. Many were working to supplement poor family incomes or to pay for their own education. Child labour was associated with trafficking of children from rural to urban areas, commonly for domestic servitude or prostitution. Child labourers receive low pay, have higher high school dropout rates, poorer school performance, and are at risk for work-related injuries, wounds, sickness, and even death. They are also much more likely to be physically and sexually abused and to be undernourished.

Child labour in the tobacco industry is particularly concerning because tobacco products are also dangerous to children in other ways, making the tobacco industry a major multidimensional hazard to the world’s children.

Children who passively inhale the smoke of adult smokers are at increased risk for pneumonia, ear infections, asthma and other illnesses. About 700 million children are exposed to passive smoking globally every year. Children and youth are targetted by tobacco industry advertising and marketing, and through the addiction of teen smokers, the tobacco industry gains customers for life. There is evidence also that teen smoking is on the rise in Kenya. Fifty percent of adult smokers will die from tobacco-related diseases, and over 90% of them began smoking in their teens.

Tobacco companies have known for a long time that their profits depend on hooking kids on cigarettes. A research report sent in 1981 to the vice president of the Research and Development section of Philip Morris, the US tobacco company, stated that:

“Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer and the overwhelming majority of smokers begin to smoke while in their teens… The smoking patterns of teenagers are particularly important to Philip Morris.”

Millions of child labourers in tobacco-producing areas of the world suffer on tobacco farms and in tobacco processing factories. In Indonesia, for example, over a million children work as labourers on tobacco farms. In India, bidi tycoons abuse of the rights of young girls who work all day long hand-preparing bidis, the main form of smoked tobacco in India, denying these girls a decent upbringing, as well as their right to an education and to be free from economic exploitation. Many are in bonded labour to the tobacco industry.

The number of children in Subsaharan Africa working on tobacco farms is not known, though estimates from Malawi alone suggest that over 75,000 children labour on tobacco farms, comprising a third of the tobacco farm workforce there.

Green Tobacco Sickness is a very common and terrifying illness that is caused by acute nicotine poisoning and repeatedly affects children working on tobacco farms. It is caused by absorption of nicotine from moist tobacco leaves through the child’s skin during leaf harvesting. Children develop severe nausea, vomiting, weakness, rapid heart rate, dizziness, abdominal cramps, shortness of breath and sometimes hallucinations. These distressing symptoms can last the whole day and can happen at any time during harvesting, and most children do not have access to medical treatment.

Children are also exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides during tobacco farming. In one study, a quarter of tobacco farmworkers showed evidence of pesticide toxicity. Protective gear is more-often-than-not unavailable to these unfortunate children.

As if it is not enough that the tobacco industry violates the human rights of children through its exploitation of child labourers on tobacco farms, there are the added human rights abuses involving exposure of children to second hand cigarette smoke, their addiction to tobacco through aggressive advertising and marketing, and their eventual disability and death from tobacco-related diseases as adults. And we cannot even comprehend the awful psychological impact on children, or the devastating impact of financial loss, when a parent or caregiver dies from a smoking-related disease.

Kenya’s Children Act (2001) states that:

Every child shall be protected from economic exploitation and any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development,


Every child shall be entitled to protection from the use of hallucinogens, narcotics, alcohol, tobacco products or psychotropic drugs… from being involved in their production, trafficking or distribution.”

These legally binding statements encompass the devastating effects of the tobacco industry’s addictive and unhealthy products on children, from child labour to teen addiction to tobacco-related diseases and death.

Proper enforcement of these laws will require strong action at various levels, including educating parents about the rights of their children; educating children about their own rights; enforcing child labour laws; supporting tobacco farmers, especially against exploitation by, and reliance on, tobacco companies; and enforcing tobacco control regulations and educating youth about the dangers of tobacco.

Importantly, it will be imperative to create and enforce decisive and strongly punitive laws to prevent tobacco companies from influencing politicians and other public policy makers through bribery and other corrupt tobacco industry practices, which have been- and still are- despicably rife in poor countries.