Child labourers as young as five are suffering severe health problems from a daily skin absorption of up to 54 milligrams of dissolved nicotine, according to the international children’s organisation Plan.
Malawian tobacco is found in the blend of almost every cigarette smoked in the west. The low-grade, high-nicotine tobacco is often used as a filler by manufacturers, reflecting a long-term global shift in production.
Tobacco farms in America declined by 89% between 1954 and 2002. Three-quarters of production has migrated to developing countries, with Malawi the world’s fifth biggest producer. Seventy per cent of its export income comes from tobacco and the country is economically dependent on it.
Plan cites research showing that Malawi has the highest incidence of child labour in southern Africa, with 88.9% of five to 14-year-olds working in the agricultural sector. It is estimated that more than 78,000 children work on tobacco estates – some up to 12 hours a day, many for less than 1p an hour and without protective clothing.
Plan’s researchers invited 44 children from tobacco farms in three districts to take part in a series of workshops. They revealed a catalogue of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and spoke about the need to work to support themselves and their families and pay school fees.
The children reported common symptoms of green tobacco sickness (GTS), or nicotine poisoning, including severe headaches, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, coughing and breathlessness.
“Sometimes it feels like you don’t have enough breath, you don’t have enough oxygen,” one child said. “You reach a point where you cannot breathe because of the pain in your chest. Then the blood comes when you vomit. At the end, most of this dies and then you remain with a headache.”
GTS is a common hazard of workers coming into contact with tobacco leaves and absorbing nicotine through their skin, particularly when harvesting. It is made worse by humid and wet conditions, which are prevalent in Malawi, as residual moisture on the leaves helps nicotine to be absorbed quicker.
Everyday symptoms of GTS are more severe in children than adults as they have not built up a tolerance to nicotine through smoking and because of their physical size. There is a lack of research into the long-term effects of GTS in children, but experts believe that it could seriously impair their development.
Neal Benowitz, professor of medicine, psychiatry and biopharmaceutical sciences at California University in San Francisco, said: “Numerous animal studies have shown that administration of nicotine during infancy and adolescence produces long-lasting changes in brain structure and function, as well as behavioural changes that are not seen when nicotine is administered to adults.
“The brain of a child or adolescent is particularly vulnerable to adverse neurobehavioural effects of nicotine exposure.”
Plan called on Malawi’s government to enforce existing child labour and protection laws and on plantations to provide safer, fairer working conditions for those children forced to work. It demanded that multinational tobacco companies scrutinise their suppliers far more closely and follow their own corporate responsibility guidelines.
Macdonald Mumba, Plan Malawi’s child rights adviser, said: “This research shows that tobacco estates are exploiting and abusing children who have a right to a safe working environment.
“Plan is calling for better enforcement of child labour laws and harsher punishment for employers who break them. These children are risking their health for 11p a day.”
Copyright © 24 August 2009Guardian