Still Smoke? Your Cigarettes May Have Poisoned Indonesian Kids

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When he was 9 years old, Samsul Hadi began working the tobacco fields in his village in central Indonesia. It wasn’t long before his back ached, his hands turned black from the sticky residue of tobacco leaf, and he began vomiting blood — a consequence of nicotine poisoning that caused his parents to rush him to a doctor who told him to quit.

“I was coughing for two days, then vomiting blood the next day,” said Samsul, now 18, shy and pock-cheeked, as he perched on the edge of a field and contemplated his family’s future tobacco crops. “Children aren’t strong enough. I don’t want them to experience this.”

Yet all over Indonesia, they are. Children as young as 8 are working in Indonesia’s tobacco farms where they are exposed to potentially brain-damaging and illness-causing effects from nicotine poisoning and toxic pesticides, as well as dangerous physical labor, according to a 119-page report by Human Rights Watch released Wednesday. Much of the tobacco is sold to multinational producers of cigarettes smoked in the United States, Europe, Japan, China and elsewhere, it said.

Indonesia has as many as tens of thousands of children being exposed to harmful conditions while farming tobacco, according to Margaret Wurth, Human Rights Watch’s children’s rights researcher and the report’s co-author. The International Labour Organization estimates that more than 1.5 million Indonesian children work on farms including tobacco, rubber and palm oil plantations.

“I interviewed several dozen kids and was shocked by how young they were when they started doing the work and the hazards they were facing,” Wurth said. “They are at the center of this world of tobacco.”

Researchers interviewed 132 children in central and east Java, as well as West Nusa Tenggara, east of Bali — the provinces that produce almost 90 percent of Indonesia’s tobacco. About 75 percent of them started working in tobacco fields by age 12, the Human Rights Watch report said. Half the children interviewed reported nausea, vomiting, headaches or dizziness — symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning from absorption through their skin, it said. Some children missed school or dropped out, the report said.

The seven multinational cigarette producers named in the report have inadequate procedures for making sure their supply chains are child-labor free, the report said. It recommended more vigilance, government regulation and a ban on children under 18 handling tobacco. Currently, the legal employment age in Indonesia is 15.

The companies named in the report as sourcing from Indonesia or owning tobacco concerns there are Altria Group, British American Tobacco, China National Tobacco Corp., Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco Inc., Philip Morris International and Reynolds American Inc. BAT, which makes the Dunhill, Lucky Strike and Pall Mall brands, and Philip Morris, which produces Marlboro, Parliament and Virginia Slims, respectively own or control Indonesian companies PT Bentoel Internasional Investama and PT Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna.

“All said they were taking steps, but none have policies that are extensive enough,” Wurth said, except China National Tobacco, which didn’t respond to the organization’s request for a response. “None can trace where the lots were purchased and can’t certify it’s child-labor free. Much more needs to be done.”

China National Tobacco, the world’s largest cigarette maker, also didn’t reply to a Bloomberg News request for comment. A spokesman for Richmond, Virginia-based Altria, formerly the parent company of Philip Morris International until they split in 2008, said the company doesn’t buy tobacco directly or indirectly from Indonesia and has procedures to ensure its leaf merchants don’t use underage workers.

Miguel Coleta, sustainability officer for Philip Morris, called child labor a “systemic problem” in Indonesia, not only in tobacco farming, that the company has been trying to tackle.

“We truly acknowledge more needs to be done,” he said, noting that the company has seen “a significant reduction” in child labor incidents since it began four years ago to increase the amount of tobacco it purchases from Indonesian farmers through direct contract, which is now about 70 percent of its Indonesian supply. Philip Morris’s ability to expand contracting is undercut by those tobacco buyers not imposing the standards that the New York-based company tries to enforce with 200 local field representatives, who have issued protective equipment to 27,000 farmers and are working with schools to ensure kids stay enrolled, Coleta said.

“We welcome this report. It sheds light on a very important issue,” he said. “By having more visibility, we hope that others will be encouraged” to make improvements in reducing child labor.

British American Tobacco said in a statement that the U.K.-based company and its Indonesian subsidiary, Bentoel, take the issue of child labor “extremely seriously,” and that they support many of Human Rights Watch’s recommendations on tackling the issue in conjunction with government regulation and non-profit organizations.

“We do not employ children in any of our operations worldwide and make it clear to all of our contracted farmers and suppliers that exploitative child labor will not be tolerated,” the company said in a statement. “In Indonesia, however, children often participate in agriculture to help their families, and to learn farming methods and skills from their elders. We are working with the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT) and other stakeholders in Indonesia to tackle exploitative child labor in leaf growing areas.”

Imperial Brands’ Imperial Tobacco, which produces Davidoff and Gauloises Blondes cigarettes and is based in Bristol, U.K., also said that it’s working with Geneva-based ECLT — which includes most major companies named in the report — as well as its own supplier monitoring and sustainability projects, and welcomes the Human Rights Watch report.

“Child labor is a wider issue in the agricultural supply chain, and not specific to tobacco,” Imperial spokesman Simon Evans wrote. “Nevertheless, it’s clear that children should not be working in the tobacco industry, and we seek to positively influence and address this risk in the supply chain.”

Japan Tobacco, maker of Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges, takes child labor very seriously and is committed to eliminating the problem by working with various groups dedicated to these goals, including ECLT, according to Tokyo-based spokesman Masahito Shirasu.

“We are aware there are still child labor issues in tobacco fields and we are working hard to resolve these issues in countries where we do business,” he wrote. “This is fundamental and non-negotiable and is a core part of the JT Group’s policy on procurement of tobacco.”

A spokesman for Reynolds American’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., maker of Winston and Camel cigarettes in the United States, said the North Carolina-based company participates in a Sustainable Tobacco Production (STP) program, which calls for periodic review of its leaf supply chain and requires international suppliers to comply with its guidelines prohibiting child labor.

“R.J. Reynolds purchases very little tobacco from Indonesia, and what it does purchase is acquired from leaf suppliers who participate in the STP program,” the spokesman, Bryan Hatchell, wrote.

Monitoring on the ground to ensure children don’t handle tobacco is limited, with the country’s own labor inspectors not visiting farms, Human Rights Watch’s Wurth said. Indonesia’s legal age of 15 for employment gives children three years of exposure to nicotine during their developmental years.

“Based on our research, we think kids under 18 shouldn’t have contact with tobacco in any form,” she said.

Often, protective equipment such as masks and gloves aren’t worn in the tropical heat, she said. Temperatures in Indonesia regularly reach the 30s (high 80s) during harvest season, and peer pressure also plays a role.

Samsul, working on one of Indonesia’s 500,000 tobacco farms in the village of Kedungrejoso in Probolinggo, East Java, didn’t wear gloves to handle leaves. He got back aches from carrying water buckets and from the age of 15 began carrying pesticide tanks.

Maryam, 13, started helping her parents after school in the tobacco fields in the same village when she was 9 or 10 years old. Picking tobacco leaves makes her cough, she said, though she hasn’t yet vomited blood. She has a mask to put over her cherubic, smiling face, but she doesn’t wear it.

“Because then people said, ‘Why are you wearing a mask? You look like the city people. It’s only tobacco,'” she said, sitting on the porch of her 15-year-old friend and fellow tobacco worker, Warodatul Yaumi.

The modest wood and cement house, with tobacco-leaf-drying boards outside, isn’t far from warehouses belonging to Philip Morris’s Sampoerna and BAT’s Bentoel. The girls don’t know what happens to the tobacco they pick, other than that it’s sold for money to buy rice. In four months’ time, when this year’s harvest is ready, they plan to grin and bear it yet again.

“It’s tiring and hot,” said Maryam, who ultimately wants to be a science teacher if her family can make enough money for her to complete school. “If I complain, people say, ‘You’re still young, but why already in pain?'”

Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael R. Bloomberg, majority owner of Bloomberg LP, has funded tobacco control initiatives globally, including in Indonesia. It was not involved in the Human Rights Watch report.

(c) 2016, Bloomberg · Rieka Rahadiana, Sheridan Prasso 



  1. This is proof-positive of the failure of capitalism. The only economic option available to them is one that kills their children. A world body like the UN should be forcibly taxing the citizens of rich countries to support those of developing nations. That’s the Torah way.

  2. What a ridiculous article. Typical liberal logic: blame inanimate objects, not the actual evildoers. It’s all tobacco’s fault, you see, not the people who work their kids to death.

  3. If they really wanted to make sure no children are working, they should institute “mashgichim,” use satellite imaging, spot checking, etc.

  4. How do they think they can reduce child labour when one can’t even convince / enforce that gloves and masks are worn at the very least by those under 18 – who work legally and who according to the law are provided safety gear which is inconvenient and so they don’t wear it. Or putting restrictions on the age of pesticide handling, which would be a small and relatively feasible but quite useful health measure. Then there is the biggest problem of all, one can replace workers with older workers (who also know better about work safety) or even with robots, but how to replace the income those young people are bringing their families?


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