Clear The Air News Tobacco Blog Rotating Header Image

September 14th, 2011:

Child labour: the tobacco industry’s smoking gun

In Malawi and beyond, child workers as young as five are being exposed to the toxic dangers of tobacco harvesting

MDG : Malawi tobacco child labour story

A tobacco farm in Malawi. Many of the country’s estimated 80,000 child tobacco workers suffer from nicotine poisoning. Photograph: Kristin Palitza

At the height of the tobacco harvest season, Malawi‘s lush, flowing fields are filled with young children picking the big green-yellow leaves. Some can count their age on one hand.

One of them is five-year-old Olofala, who works every day with his parents in rural Kasungu, one of Malawi’s key tobacco growing districts. When asked if he will go to school next year, he shrugs his shoulders.

One thing is clear to Olofala already: work comes first, education second. His sister, Ethel, 12, is only in year three. She attends school irregularly because she has to work, or because she is sick. “I cough,” she says. “I have chest pains and headaches. Sometimes it feels like you don’t have enough breath.”

Such complaints are not uncommon. Many of Malawi’s estimated 80,000 child tobacco workers suffer from a disease called green tobacco sickness, or nicotine poisoning. Symptoms include severe headaches, abdominal cramps, muscle weakness, breathing difficulties, diarrhoea and vomiting, high blood pressure and fluctuations in heart rate, according to the World Health Organisation.

Since the handling of the leaves is done largely without protective clothing, workers absorb up to 54 milligrams of dissolved nicotine daily through their skin, equal to the amount of 50 cigarettes, according to 2005 research by Prof Robert McKnight, of the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. Farm owners routinely plead ignorance of the health implications. “I never heard about touching tobacco leaves being dangerous,” says Fraston Mkwantha, who plants 15 hectares of tobacco in Kasungu district.

At the consumer end of the chain, smokers are constantly reminded of the associated health risks. Most are oblivious to the reality that, far from harming only themselves, their toxic habit is slowly killing the underage children involved in the production process.

Until the 1980s, much of the world’s tobacco was grown in the US. Today, however, about 85% of worldwide production comes from the global south, where tobacco child labour is a major problem, according to a 2010 US Department of Labour report (pdf).

“In any developing country where tobacco is grown, you find child labour starting at the age of five,” says Marty Otañez, a researcher at the University of California’s tobacco control research and education centre.

Malawi, which has the highest number of child labourers in Africa, is a key offender. Health issues aside, children are also financially exploited. Olofala and Ethel often work 12-hour days, but neither earns a salary. They “help” their parents, who work on one of Kasungu’s 22,000 registered tobacco farms and estates. Other kids receive an average of $0.25 for long hours of unrelenting work.

They are arguably the lucky ones; some never see their money at all. “We have many reports of children who were lured into labour with promises of good pay. But at the end of a season, all they get is an old sweater,” says Grace Masanya, Malawi project manager for Plan, the international child rights NGO.

At the heart of the problem is Malawi’s poor economic situation. Parents involve their children in economic activities to provide food for the family.

Over the past decade, the country has become one of the five largest tobacco producers in the world, largely due to low tariffs on unmanufactured tobacco imports, cheap labour and lack of regulations. According to the UN’s statistical division, more than 98% of Malawi’s low-cost leaf is exported, with the EU and the US top destinations.

And more than 90% of Malawi’s tobacco is bought by two US-based leaf buyers, Universal Corporation and Alliance One International, which resell it to international tobacco firms. Their main clients are two of the world’s biggest cigarette manufacturers, Philip Morris (Marlboro) and British American Tobacco (Lucky Strike). Consequently, Malawi’s tobacco is found in the blend of almost every cigarette smoked in the west.

Child labour rights

The country is a signatory to the UN and International Labour Organisation (ILO) child labour conventions, and also has its own legislative framework barring the employment of children under 14. So why does the government turn a blind eye? The answer is simple: Malawi’s economy is heavily dependent on tobacco, which makes up 70% of its export earnings, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“Some estates follow anti-child labour regulations, but others purposefully flaunt the law in the interest of higher profits,” says Plan Malawi advisor MacDonald Mumba. Over the past two years, only 49 farm owners have been prosecuted in Malawi, he says. Most received a $34 fine.

Gaps and inconsistencies in Malawi’s legislative framework contribute to the problems of child labour, according to the ILO.

“The legal framework is very weak,” confirms Unicef child protection programme officer Tomoko Horii, who believes promises to eliminate child labour amount to little more than window dressing presented in response to mounting international pressure. The laws lack specific targets to reduce child labour and, most importantly, an appropriate budget. “The budget allocation is minimal. So far all projects have to be financed by international NGOs,” says Horii.

Her sentiments are echoed by Khalid Hassan, the ILO’s child labour adviser in Malawi. “Ratifying conventions and passing laws doesn’t solve the problem,” says Hassan. “You need money, commitment, cost-effective programmes, infrastructure and hard work.”

The tobacco giants, who all have anti-child labour policies in place, insist they abide by the rules. British American Tobacco (BAT)says on its website that it does “not employ children in any of our operations worldwide”, but admits that using intermediaries to purchase tobacco makes it difficult to trace the country from which they buy the leaf and ensure all farm owners follow the rules.

That is bad news for countries such as Malawi, where the education system is feeble and only a third of children complete primary school. “Unless the education sector scales up to offer quality education to all children, they will continue to work,” says Horii.

Tobacco growing is extraordinarily lucrative for the industry. Financial reports for 2008 by the five big tobacco companies – BAT, Philip Morris, China National Tobacco Company, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco – show that they collectively earned $300bn. This is more money than the GDP of all but 40 countries worldwide.

Part of the reason for those huge profits is that tobacco giants benefit from $1.2bn in unpaid child labour costs, according to Otañez’s colleague Prof Stanton Glantz. Replacing child labour with adults paid the minimum wage would increase the production costs by $10m per year in Malawi alone, he says.

For Glantz, the solution is simple: “If major tobacco companies were genuinely committed to improving the socio-economic conditions of child workers, they should rectify harmful business practices by enforcing a policy that they will not purchase any tobacco grown using child labour.”

The tobacco giants disagree. “Simply stopping altogether our purchases of tobacco from Malawi will do nothing to alleviate the serious issue of child labour in this country,” says Anne Edwards, director of external communications for Philip Morris.

While this standoff continues, the people of Malawi benefit little from their “green gold”. Malawi remains one of the least developed nations in the world, ranking 153 out of 169 countries on the 2010 Human Development Index. About 40% of the 13.2 million Malawians live below the poverty line of $1.25 a day.

All Huff and Puff as Big Tobacco Quietly Runs Away

14 Sept. 2011$File/NR178.pdf

Tobacco industry case up in smoke

The threatened litigation by the tobacco industry against proposed plain packaging laws is part of a larger strategy of seeking to frustrate the regulation of tobacco advertising and branding, according to a leading intellectual property expert.

Speaking at last night’s Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee, Dr Matthew Rimmer, an Associate Professor from the ANUCollege of Law, said that the proposed new laws would fulfil the Australian Government’s obligations under the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Dr Matthew Rimmer

“Under the WHO framework agreement, Australia is required to develop, implement, upgrade and review comprehensive tobacco control strategies, and this, among other obligations, is well reflected in the government’s measures,” Dr Rimmer said. “Indeed, the World Health Organization has hailed Australia’s initiative as an exemplary measure which should be followed by other nations.

“It is also clear that the initiative is entirely consistent with the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Agreement 1994, which recognises that ‘members may, in formulating or amending their laws and regulations, adopt measures necessary to protect public health’.

“In addition, the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill 2011 and the Trade Mark Amendments (Tobacco Plain Packaging) Bill 2011 are clearly within the Commonwealth’s broad legislative power to regulate trade mark law and policy.

“The outlandish, greedy submissions for billions of dollars in compensation for an acquisition of property under the AustralianConstitution are without merit, and will no doubt be given short shrift by the High Court of Australia,” Dr Rimmer said. “In my opinion, the tobacco industry’s threatened litigation is largely vexatious.”

Dr Rimmer noted that tobacco-related illness caused more than 5,200 deaths and over 44,000 hospitalisations each year in NSW alone, and that the annual social cost of tobacco use in that State was over $8 billion.

“Rather than ask whether the tobacco industry should be compensated for the plain packaging of tobacco products, the better question is whether the tobacco industry should provide full and comprehensive compensation for the untold damage it has caused to the health and well-being of Australian citizens.

Dr Rimmer also called for a Parliamentary inquiry into the role of the tobacco industry in treaty negotiations, litigation, political donations, lobbying and the funding of think-tanks and consultants in Australia.

Filed under: Media Release,
Contacts: For interviews: Dr Matthew Rimmer, (02) 6125 4164

Quit smoking for chance to win US$2,500$2,500-

Updated: Tuesday, 13 Sep 2011, 9:01 PM EDT
Published : Tuesday, 13 Sep 2011, 9:01 PM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – A statewide contest that begins next month is designed to encourage Hoosiers to kick the habit. It comes at the same time that a new nationwide report shows fewer Americans are smoking.

A new “Vital Signs” report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that smokers are smoking less, but that tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death for Americans.

“The sooner you quit the quicker your body can start to heal,” said Karla Sneegas, Assistant Commissioner of Tobacco Prevention and Cessation and the Indiana State Department of Health. “Cutting back on smoking can be a step to quitting smoking for life, but to reduce the risks for a heart attack, asthma attack, cancer, or other smoking-related diseases you need to quit for good.”

The 2011 Quit Now Indiana Contest is a statewide contest designed to encourage Hoosiers do just that—quit for life. As an extra incentive to the benefits of better health, the contest offers participants a chance to win cash prizes up to $2,500 for remaining tobacco-free during the month of October.

The “Vital Signs” report comes on the heels of new Indiana smoking data released by the State Health Department in August. State health officials reported that the smoking rate for Hoosier adults dropped significantly from 27.4 percent in 2001 to a new historic low of 21.2 percent in 2010. The Indiana data is collected as part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a state-based system of health surveys that collects information on health risk behaviors, preventative health practices and health care access primarily related to chronic disease and injury.

In Indiana nearly 10,000 Hoosiers die each year from tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke. Additionally, for every one smoking-related death, another 20 Hoosiers live with a smoking-related disease.

To learn more about the Quit Now Indiana Contest and other smoking cessation resources available, visit

To be eligible to win, contestants must be 18 years or older, a legal resident of Indiana, a current tobacco user and stay tobacco free from October 1 through October 31, 2011.

The registration period lasts through September 30, 2011, (all entries must be received by midnight on September 30, 2011). Contest winners will be drawn at random and will be tested to make sure they are tobacco-free to be eligible to claim a prize(s).

Clear the Air says : Local smokers must show they are smart as ‘wild man’ Shirley and QUIT

Malaysian Orangutan to Kick Smoking Habit

Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—A captive orangutan often spotted smoking cigarettes given to her by zoo visitors is being forced to kick the habit, a Malaysian wildlife official said Monday.


Associated Press

An orangutan called Shirley smoking at Johor Zoo in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

Government authorities seized the adult ape named Shirley from a state-run zoo in Malaysia’s southern Johor state last week after she and several other animals there were deemed to be living in poor conditions.

Shirley is now being quarantined at another zoo in a neighboring state and is expected to be sent to a Malaysian wildlife center on Borneo island within weeks.

Melaka Zoo Director Ahmad Azhar Mohammed said Shirley is not being provided with any more cigarettes because “smoking is not normal behavior for orangutans.”

“I would say she is not addicted … but she might have formed a habit after mimicking human beings who were smoking around her,” Mr. Ahmad told the Associated Press.

Shirley was so far displaying a regular appetite for food and no obvious signs of depression or illness, Mr. Ahmad said. Results from her blood tests and other detailed health examinations were not yet available.

Nature Alert, a British-based activist group, wrote to Malaysian officials about Shirley earlier this year, saying conservationists who visited the Johor zoo often saw people throwing lit cigarettes to her in a pit-like enclosure.

The group said Shirley seemed to suffer severe mood swings, sometimes looking drowsy and on other occasions appearing “very agitated” without a cigarette.

It is not clear when Shirley started smoking. Officials have estimated she is around 20 years old. Orangutans, which are native to rainforests in Borneo and Indonesia’s Sumatra island, can live up to about 60 years in captivity.

Other countries such as South Africa and Russia have also reported cases of primates learning to smoke after zoo visitors ignored warnings and tossed cigarettes into the cages of chimpanzees.

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Smoking ban gets prisoners moving

Prisoners have taken up exercise, carrot sticks and dried nuts since a nationwide smoking ban at prisons began.

In the first two months of the ban, which has cost the health system more than $1 million, only 30 prisoners from a total of about 8700 had been caught smoking, the Corrections Department said yesterday.

In the same period, 353 items of tobacco or smoking equipment were found in prison or being smuggled in.

Last month, for example 50 grams of tobacco were found stitched inside a pair of slippers being sent by mail to a Christchurch Women’s Prison inmate.

Prison Services spokesman Brendan Anstiss said yesterday that the smoking ban implementation had gone “very smoothly” and the vast majority of smoking prisoners had taken up nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches.

“This was complemented by the other support mechanisms on offer, like participating in exercise activities, choosing healthy food options such as carrot sticks or dried fruit or nuts and relying on the support of fellow prisoners and our health staff and calling the Quitline.”

Dr Anstiss said many prisoners had seen the ban as an opportunity to kick the habit, with good support on offer.

Health Ministry figures show the cost of nicotine replacement therapy was about $100,000 for the year ending June 2010, the year in which prisons began receiving a direct supply of nicotine replacement products, and about $950,000 in the year ending June 2011.

– The Dominion Post