Child tobacco pickers' 'two-packs-a-day habit'

    TORONTO, Aug. 24 /CNW/ - CHILDREN working on tobacco farms in Malawi are
regularly exposed to levels of nicotine so high that many may suffer from
nicotine poisoning, according to a new report by the international children's
organization Plan.
    The report, Hard Work, Little Pay and Long Hours, reveals that child
labourers, some as young as 5, are suffering severe physical symptoms from
absorbing up to 54 milligrams a day of dissolved nicotine through their skin -
the equivalent of 50 average cigarettes(1).
    As the tobacco industry continues to shift its production to developing
countries, children are increasingly being exposed to these hazardous working
conditions. An estimated 78,000 children work on tobacco estates across Malawi
- some for up to 12 hours a day, with many working for less than 17 cents an
hour and without protective gear.
    "Young people working in Malawi's tobacco industry to help support
themselves and their families have the right to work in safe conditions, earn
fair wages and have access to schooling," said Sarah Stevenson, Plan Canada's
child rights advisor and a leading authority on child labour. "Tobacco
companies must stop turning a blind eye to this exploitation and live up to
their commitments to respect human rights and to ensure all children are
healthy and treated fairly."
    Children interviewed by Plan disclosed the physical, sexual and emotional
abuse they suffer. They also spoke about their need to work, even under such
exploitative conditions, to support themselves and their families and to pay
school fees. They 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. 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
(subsides) and then you remain with a headache," one child said.
    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
smaller 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
    "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," says Neal Benowitz, Professor of
Medicine, Psychiatry and Biopharmaceutical Sciences at University of
California, San Francisco. "The brain of a child or adolescent is particularly
vulnerable to long lasting adverse neurobehavioral effects of nicotine
    Plan is now calling upon all responsible parties to live up to their
commitments: the government to rigorously enforce existing child labour and
protection laws; plantations to provide safer, fairer working conditions for
those children compelled to work and multinational tobacco companies to
scrutinise their suppliers far more closely and demand strict adherence to
their own corporate responsibility guidelines.
    "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," says MacDonald Mumba, Plan Malawi's Child Rights Advisor.
    "These children are risking their health for 17 cents a day and
multinational tobacco companies, who profit vastly from child labour, need to
take a more active responsibility for their involvement."

    About Plan

    Plan is a global movement for change, mobilizing millions of people
around the world to support social justice for children in developing
countries. Founded in 1937 as Foster Parents Plan, we are one of the world's
oldest and largest international development agencies, working in partnership
with millions of people around the world to end global poverty. Not for
profit, independent and inclusive of all faiths and cultures, we have only one
agenda: to improve the lives of children. Join us and plan to change the

    Experts available for interview:

    Sarah Stevenson, Plan Canada's child rights adviser and a leading
    authority on child labour.

    McDonald Mumba, Plan Child Rights Advisor in Malawi.


    (1) Average nicotine levels per cigarette vary by brand and country.
        Common nicotine levels in medium strength brands range from 0.6 to
        1.5 mg per cigarette. European Union 2002 Tobacco Product regulations
        set maximum nicotine levels at 1mg per cigarette.

    Editor's Notes:

    Global Tobacco Production
    70 per cent of Malawi's export income comes from tobacco and the country
is economically dependent on it. Three quarters of tobacco production has now
shifted to developing countries and Malawi is the world's 5th biggest
producer. Tobacco farms in America saw an 89 per cent decline between 1954 and

    Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS)
    Green Tobacco Sickness 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 be
absorbed quicker.

    Tobacco Companies
    Multinational companies buy the majority of Malawi's burley tobacco. This
low-grade, high-nicotine tobacco is often used as a filler in cigarettes
across North America and Europe.

For further information:

For further information: Media Contacts: Steve Theobald, Media and
Public Relations Manager, Plan Canada, Direct: (416) 920-1659 ext 211, Cell:
(416) 568-6525,; Laura Modesto, Veritas
Communications, Direct: (416) 955-4579, Cell: (416) 571-0140,

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