The Wall Street Journal By LAUREN ETTER – MARCH 23, 2009
Companies Seek to Help Field Workers Avoid Acute Nicotine Poisoning
Workers who toil in tobacco fields have suffered quietly for years from a type of acute nicotine poisoning called green tobacco sickness.
Now, the world’s biggest tobacco companies — under pressure from human-rights and farm-labor activists — are publicly acknowledging the health risks associated with green tobacco sickness and taking steps designed to help prevent it.
At its shareholder meeting in May, Philip Morris International Inc. will announce a plan aimed at reducing farmers’ risk of falling ill from green tobacco sickness. Philip Morris USA, a unit of Altria Group Inc., Richmond, Va., is planning to disseminate information on the illness to tobacco farmers in coming months. Reynolds American Inc., Winston Salem, N.C., is bankrolling the production of a short video about the illness that will be distributed to farmers.
“The more we looked into [green tobacco sickness], the more we realized that this was an issue we missed,” says Even Hurwitz, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Philip Morris International, based in Lausanne, Switzerland. “We didn’t realize how serious it is.”
While typically not life-threatening, green tobacco sickness is a debilitating illness that causes nausea, vomiting, dizziness and, in severe cases, dehydration. It afflicts tobacco workers when nicotine on moist tobacco leaves seeps through their pores as they hand-harvest the leaves. The symptoms typically last 12 to 48 hours.
Tens of millions of workers harvest tobacco in more than 100 countries, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based in Rome. In one study, a quarter of tobacco workers surveyed reported having green tobacco sickness at least once.
More attention is being paid to the illness partly because the nature of tobacco production has changed. Increasingly in the U.S., tobacco is grown on larger farms, rather than the small family farms that once dominated the industry. That means more migrant workers are picking tobacco for longer periods of time, increasing their exposure.
Green tobacco sickness also is becoming a bigger global problem as tobacco production shifts to the developing world, where production costs are lower. The World Health Organization is conducting research on the health, social and environmental impact of tobacco growing in the developing world, including green tobacco sickness.
Getting the tobacco industry to acknowledge some of the risks associated with harvesting tobacco is a coup for shareholder-rights activists like Michael Crosby, who have lobbied the tobacco industry for years on topics ranging from advertising to the health effects of smoking.
Father Crosby, a Catholic priest at the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order, filed a shareholder resolution at Philip Morris International late last year after reading about Mexican farm workers who fell ill from green tobacco sickness. The resolution demanded that the company deal with the malady “to ensure our profits and dividends are not being realized by exploiting ‘the least’ of our brothers and sisters.”
Father Crosby withdrew his resolution after Philip Morris International responded with a step-by-step response to how the company would address the problem.
In a letter to Father Crosby reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Philip Morris International said it would include in its contracts with leaf suppliers a specific provision requiring them to implement certain procedures to reduce the risk of green tobacco sickness.
The company also said in the letter that it is developing training materials that will be distributed to growers in the U.S. and internationally.
“I consider this a major step,” says Father Crosby, who has pressured companies as a shareholder activist for decades on topics like human rights in Tibet and global warming.
Some remain skeptical. “I just think it’s a feel-good resolution as far as I’m concerned,” says Baldemar Velasquez, founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. “Implementing programs isn’t going to make a difference on the bottom until workers have a right to manage those things on their own.” Mr. Velasquez is working to unionize tobacco workers and other farm workers across the U.S.
Tobacco harvesting is labor-intensive because it’s still mainly done by hand. Workers spend hours in the sun picking leaves that are then cured and processed into cigarettes. Other job-related hazards include heat stroke and pesticide exposure.
Until recently, green tobacco sickness hasn’t been taken seriously as an occupational hazard, partly because research has been scant.
Thomas Arcury, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine who has done extensive research into the illness, describes green tobacco sickness as “an ignored occupational illness” that tends to affect poor, minority workers who have little access to health care. The North Carolina Department of Labor says green tobacco sickness has been “grossly underreported because many of those who experience the sickness don’t understand their ailment or its cause.”
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