Australia’s cigarette trade is being propped up by the exploitation of children – new figures reveal $16 million worth of tobacco grown in countries using cheap child labour is being imported every year.
An analysis of United Nations trade data shows that almost 3000 tonnes of tobacco were imported last year from countries using child labour to cultivate crops.
Anti-smoking group ASH Australia, which compiled the figures, warns that children as young as five are being paid a pittance to work in the tobacco trade, and face serious health risks from nicotine poisoning.
Chief executive Anne Jones said that while most smokers knew the personal health risks of smoking, many would be unaware cigarettes largely came from countries such as India, the Philippines, Thailand and Malawi, where child labour was rife.
”Many are being taken out of school and some are working up to seven hours a day. In many countries, they’re earning less than a dollar a day,” Ms Jones said.
”There’s this terrible disease you get from handling raw, green tobacco, because nicotine is absorbed through the skin and children are particularly vulnerable to that. If you’re absorbing nicotine, you’re also probably becoming addicted to it.”
Tobacco production in Australia ceased during the mid-1990s as governments offered grants to encourage farmers to quit the trade.
Since the 1960s, there has been a 50 per cent decline in tobacco growing in high-income countries, while low- to middle-income countries have recorded a 300 per cent increase.
Tobacco companies set up the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation in 2001, but Ms Jones said the organisation was just paying lip service.
”Using children to grow and manufacture tobacco is in direct violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but unlike other industries who say ‘we’re going to stamp out child labour’, the tobacco industry is just handing out Band-Aid solutions,” she said.
Last year, following a Fairfax Media investigation, Sherrin – Australia’s leading brand of footballs – pulled all manufacturing from India after it was revealed children as young as 10 were being exploited in the trade.
A report released in June by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance said the industry was hiding behind corporate social responsibility activities directed at children and farming communities but the problem remained entrenched.
The senior corporate affairs manager for British American Tobacco Australia, Scott McIntyre, said: ”We firmly agree that children must never be exploited, exposed to danger or denied an education. We make it clear to all of our contracted farmers and suppliers that exploitative child labour will not be tolerated.”
Mr McIntyre said the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation was advised by the International Labour Organisation.
A spokeswoman for Imperial Tobacco said the company’s policy was to ensure the group and its subsidiaries did not employ children.