WASHINGTON (AP) — Two years after the Obama administration backed off a rule that would have banned children from dangerous agriculture jobs, public health advocates and lawmakers are trying anew to get kids off tobacco farms.
The new efforts were jumpstarted by a Human Rights Watch report in May that said nearly three-quarters of the children interviewed by the group 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.
"I think that many members of Congress have been shocked that children are suffering nicotine poisoning from working in U.S. tobacco fields," said Jo Becker, Human Rights Watch's children's rights advocacy director. "In response, they are pushing tobacco companies to adopt stronger child labor policies, introducing legislation and urging the Department of Labor to take action."
The approach includes legislation to ban kids under 18 from working on such farms, pursuit of a narrower federal rule than the one that was scuttled and public pressure on tobacco companies from lawmakers and health groups.
There has been some movement within the industry. This month, the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina said it "does not condone the use of child labor" and said tobacco growers and farm labor contractors should not employ workers under 16 years old.
Philip Morris International, which limits the type of work children can do on tobacco farms, says it would like to see stronger U.S. regulations in this area.
And the Labor Department said in a statement that its Occupational Safety and Health Administration is working to determine best practices to reduce worker exposure to nicotine during tobacco harvests.
In 2011, the Labor Department proposed preventing some children from working in dangerous farm jobs, including cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco. The department tried to pre-empt a backlash from small farmers by excluding from the rule children who worked on their parents' farms.
Nevertheless, the proposal became a political punching bag for Republicans, who called it an impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms.
In an election-year decision, the Labor Department withdrew the proposed rule in 2012. In doing so, officials appeared to close the door on any action even after the presidential election: "To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration," the Labor Department said in withdrawing the rule in April 2012.
But the release of the Human Rights Watch report, based on interviews with more than 140 children working on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, sparked new interest in the issue.
Last month, 35 House Democrats wrote to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, calling for a new rule focused solely on banning children from working in the cultivation or curing of tobacco. The department hasn't yet responded to the lawmakers' letter.
Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group, called the prospect of action by the Obama administration a long shot, given the Labor Department's 2012 statement.
"When it comes to the health and safety of children, the administration should not worry about promises it made in the middle of an election, especially when that promise concerned a refusal to protect children from known safety hazards in the workplace," he said.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who signed the letter to Perez, has sponsored a bill to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to ban children under 18 from jobs where they have direct contact with tobacco plants or leaves. There's no companion bill in the Senate, but Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in a statement that he's working with other lawmakers and the administration to find common ground.
In June, Harkin and 16 other Democratic senators urged several major tobacco companies to prevent children under 18 from working in direct contact with tobacco. Philip Morris International responded that it prevents children from working in hazardous conditions, including those that could involve physical contact with tobacco plants. The company does allow children to work with seedlings or in barns sorting dried tobacco leaves, but may prohibit those activities depending on specific circumstances.
Philip Morris International spokesman Corey Henry said in an email that the company would "welcome strengthening of the U.S. regulatory framework for child labor in agriculture in line with international standards and the standards we expect to be met on all farms where we source tobacco."
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