10.14 Ethical issues related to farming

Last updated: August 2017

Suggested citation: Freeman, B and Winstanley, M. 10.15 Ethical issues related to farming In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2016. Available from http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-10-tobacco-industry/10-14-ethical-issues-related-to-farming

The World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO. At its third session (South Africa, 17–22 November 2008), the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the WHO FCTC decided to establish a working group on economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing in relation to Articles 17 and 18.1 At the fourth session of the COP (Uruguay, 15-20 November 2010), the working group presented a report that included recommendations for policy options. These policy options included1:


  • promotion of opportunities for economically sustainable livelihoods and development of markets
  • developing opportunities to counter seasonal trade in alternative crops
  • reducing tobacco production and/or promotion
  • assistance and cooperation in capacity building for economically sustainable alternative livelihoods
  • establishing an international information exchange system.

At the sixth session of the parties (Russia, 13–18 October 2014), the COP then adopted a set of policy options and recommendations on economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing. These policy options build on the recommendations from COP 4 and include an emphasis on research, training and education for workers and growers, establishing mechanisms to support alternative livelihoods, and developing international partnerships.2

The International Labour Organisationi addressed the fourth session of the Conference of the Parties as an observer and highlighted that viable economic alternatives needed to be developed for many tobacco-dependent communities where members' livelihoods would be seriously affected as a consequence of the implementation of the WHO FCTC. The International Labour Organization called on the Conference of the Parties to adopt a holistic approach when considering alternative employment options for affected parties, and reiterated its willingness to continue collaborating with the WHO FCTC by sharing its experience and expertise in labour market-related issues.3

A tobacco control advocate with direct experience observing tobacco farmers in Malawi has noted that, 'tobacco industry activities to promote farmer welfare and sustainable agriculture do have some direct impact on farmers' livelihoods, such as an increase in the number of children who attend school and improved access to clean water. But at what cost? The industry's activities are really more about promoting an image of corporate responsibility to deflect public attention from tobacco-related child labour, deforestation, pesticide poisoning and soil depletion—in Malawi and other countries'.4

10.14.1 Tobacco farming and child labour

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), child labour is mainly an agricultural issue in many countries. Globally, 58.6% of all child labourers between the ages of five and 17 years work in agriculture, which includes tobacco farming. This means more than 168 million girls and boys who are child labourers worldwide, close to 100 million of them in the agricultural sector.5 The majority (68.4%) of child labourers are unpaid family members. In agriculture this percentage is even higher, and is combined with early entry into forced work, between five and seven years of age.6

Poverty is a major impetus behind child labour, but not the only one: the International Labour Organization also identifies other important influences including social inequality, paucity of educational opportunities and options for decent adult employment, strongly agrarian economies, and traditional and cultural norms. Unscrupulous employers may play a part, and external events such as natural disasters, epidemics (e.g. HIV/AIDS) and armed conflict also push children into the role of breadwinner.7  

Child labour is common in many regions in which tobacco is grown, although the overall number of children involved is not known. Apart from denying children access to education, work in the tobacco fields may also be hazardous, exposing children to dangerous equipment, pesticides and other chemicals, and to toxicity due to nicotine in the leaf (‘green tobacco sickness’—see also Chapter 3, Section 20). Working hours are also long, with some children working 12-hour days, six days per week.8

Human Rights Watch [HRW], a non-profit, non-governmental human rights organisation, has prepared detailed reports of its extensive field research with child tobacco workers in both the US9 and Indonesia.8 Both reports contain recommendations to governments that could improve working conditions and prevent anyone under age 18 from engaging in work that required direct contact with tobacco in any form. Other recommendations are aimed at the ILO and tobacco manufactures and leaf buyers. HRW recommendations to the ILO include:


  • Develop clear, implementable guidance regarding the hazards of tobacco farming for children without delay. Urge states and companies to prohibit all children under 18 from tasks involving direct contact with tobacco in any form.
  • Consult meaningfully with states, such as Brazil, that prohibit all children under 18 from work in tobacco farming.10 Gather information about the development and implementation of these prohibitions, including government enforcement activities, industry requirements, and educational and training programs.
  • Allow a range of different types of experts to contribute meaningfully to the tripartite process on hazardous child labour and occupational safety and health in tobacco growing.

HRW recommendations to tobacco product manufacturers and tobacco leaf merchant companies include:


  • Adopt or revise global child labour policies to prohibit hazardous work by children under 18 without exceptions, including any work in which children have direct contact with tobacco in any form.
  • Establish regular and rigorous internal and third-party monitoring in the supply chain, including through unannounced inspections at the time of year, time of day, and locations where children are most likely to be working. Engage qualified and experienced monitors who are fluent in the languages that workers speak, and trained in child labour and labour rights. Include private, confidential interviews with workers, as well as growers, as components of inspections. Make the results of internal and third-party monitoring public.
  • Enhance collaboration with farmworker families, federal and local governments, the International Labour Organization’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), nongovernmental organizations, organized labour, and other stakeholders to provide children with alternatives to working in tobacco farming, including age-appropriate and accessible educational and employment opportunities and alternative sources of income.
  • Develop an international industry-wide standard to prohibit hazardous work for children under 18 on tobacco farms, including any work in which children have direct contact with tobacco in any form.

In 2002 the International Tobacco Growers' Associationii established the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation(ECLT)iii with a membership comprising workers' unions, tobacco manufacturers and the International Tobacco Growers' Association itself, with the aim of assessing the extent of child labour in tobacco growing, supporting projects to combat child labour, and sharing best practice.11 All three of the major tobacco companies operating in Australia are ECLT members and provide the foundation with financial support.12

The ILO has worked as an advisor and ally to the ECLT for many years. In 2015, it entered into an agreement to develop global guidance on hazardous child labour and occupational safety and health in tobacco growing, and to “support stronger social dialogue” in three of the countries where ECLT operates projects: Malawi, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Uganda.13 THE ECLT is largely criticised by tobacco control stakeholders14, 15 as being primarily a public relations exercise that delivers few measurable results. In the ASEAN region for example,16 where the ECLT operates projects in Indonesia and The Philippines, the problem of child labour in tobacco farming is still rife. While publicly condemning child labour, ECLT has not committed or taken steps to:


  • set a systematic plan to end child labour
  • set a deadline to end child labour in its project countries
  • reject tobacco leaves produced with child labour
  • provide a disincentive for its members who purchase tobacco leaves produced with child labour.

ECLT’s endorsement by international agencies such as the ILO only serves to legitimise and promote the program. Meanwhile, the ECLT tobacco industry members continue to profit from tobacco produced by child labour.16 Research by the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education into the background and modus operandi of the ECLT provided evidence/made the case that the primary concern for the tobacco companies involved was to enhance their corporate image, without initiating any real change that might undermine the financial benefits presented by child labour.17 The authors of this study comment that the costs of banning child labour and introducing decent working conditions and remuneration for adult tobacco workers in Malawi would be around US$10 million a year, a sum easily affordable given the enormous revenues of the tobacco companies.18

10.14.2 Tobacco farming and 'fair trade'

'Fair trade' describes commercial transactions in which farmers and labourers who produce a commodity are paid a fair price, allowing for decent wages, living conditions and community sustainability.iv Fair trade is most often associated with tea, coffee, cotton and cocoa grown in the developing world and sold to more wealthy countries. As noted in Section 10.8.1, most tobacco is sourced from the developing world where farming conditions are often harsh. Acknowledging this, the concept of fair trade in tobacco was launched with 1st-Nation cigarettes, a brand produced by a small company lead by and employing Mohawk Natives on the Akwesasne Reservation close to the border of New York and Ontario, using tobacco sourced from selected independent tobacco farmers in Malawi. These cigarettes were not widely distributed.

While the good intentions of the individuals involved are not in doubt, the concept of a 'fair trade' cigarette has raised eyebrows. If the touchstone of fair trade products is ethical trading practices, what are the implications if the product itself is inherently dangerous when used as the manufacturer intended?20-22 Ironically, the very people which 1st-Nation wishes to support—poor tobacco farmers in the developing world and First Nation peoples of North America—are especially affected by tobacco-caused death and disease.v 



i The International Labour Organization is the global United Nations agency responsible for promoting opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. http://www.ilo.org/global/lang--en/index.htm

ii For further discussion about the International Tobacco Growers' Association, refer to Section 10.18.5

iii Webpage of the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation: http://www.eclt.org/

iv See the international website for Fairtrade for further information: http://www.fairtrade.net/about_fairtrade.html

v Like some other Indigenous peoples, First Nation people have a higher prevalence of smoking than the rest of their country's population and hence bear greater health consequences (see Chapter 8, Section 3.4). The burden of death and disease due to smoking is shifting to the developing world, where prevalence of smoking has not declined and in some regions continues to increase (see Chapter 3, Section 36).

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here. ( Last updated November  2021)



1. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Conference of the Parties. Economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing (in relation to articles 17 and 18 of the who framework convention on tobacco control) progress report of the working group. Provisional agenda item 5.5 (FCTC/COP/4/9  for Uruguay 15-22 November 2010)15 August Geneva: World Health Organization, 2010. Available from: http://apps.who.int/gb/fctc/PDF/cop4/FCTC_COP4_9-en.pdf.

2. Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Policy options and recommendations on economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing (in relation to articles 17 and 18 of the who fctc). Geneva: WHO, 2014. Available from: http://www.who.int/fctc/guidelines/adopted/Policy_options_reccommendations_Articles17_18_COP6.pdf?ua=1.

3. International Labour Organization. Statement to the who framework convention on tobacco control conference of the parties punta del este - uruguay, 15-20 november 2010. Geneva: ILO, 2010. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.ilo.org/public/english/dialogue/sector/papers/food/statement.pdf.

4. Otanez M. Views on trying to change the tobacco industry: Health justice and marginalization of tobacco companies. Tobacco Control, 2009; 18(5):339–40. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/18/5.toc

5. International Labour Organization. Global child labour trends 2008 to 2012. Geneva: International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, 2013. Last update: Viewed 30 June 2017. Available from: http://www.ilo.org/ipecinfo/product/download.do?type=document&id=23015.

6. International Labour Organization. Child labour in agriculture. Geneva: ILO, 2011. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Agriculture/lang--en/index.htm.

7. Muwanga-Bayego H. Tobacco growing in uganda: The environment and women pay the price. Tobacco Control, 1994; 3(3):255-6. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/3/3/255

8. Human Rights Watch. “The harvest is in my blood”  hazardous child labor in tobacco farming in indonesia United States: Human Rights Watch, 2016. Available from: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/indonesia0516web_0.pdf.

9. Human Rights Watch. Teens of the tobacco fields child labor in united states tobacco farming 2015. Available from: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/us1215tob_4up.pdf.

10. Wurth M. Tobacco’s children. Brazil sets an example for the u.S.: The Progressive, 2015. Last update: 03 November 2017; Viewed 30 June 2017. Available from: http://progressive.org/magazine/tobacco-s-children.-brazil-sets-example-u.s./.

11. Kweyuh PHM. Tobacco expansive in kenya: The socio-ecological losses. Tobacco Control, 1994; 3(3):248-51. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/3/3/248.pdf

12. Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation. Governance. About us.  2013. Last update: 01 December 2013; Viewed 30 June 2017. Available from: http://www.eclt.org/about-us/governance/.

13. International Labour Organization. Eclt foundation and ilo sign agreement to combat child labour in tobacco.  2015. Last update: 26 May 2015; Viewed 30 June 2017. Available from: http://www.ilo.org/pardev/partnerships/public-private-partnerships/WCMS_371395/lang--en/index.htm.

14. Hefler M. Big tobacco, child labour and the international labour organization, in Tobacco Control Journal blogs 2016. Available from: http://blogs.bmj.com/tc/2016/02/08/big-tobacco-child-labour-and-the-international-labour-organization/.

15. Graen L. Tobacco industry confronted with child labour. Tobacco Control blog, 2015. Available from: http://blogs.bmj.com/tc/2015/01/27/tobacco-industry-confronted-with-child-labour/

16. Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance. Child labour in tobacco cultivation in the asean region. Indonesia: Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, 2013. Available from: http://seatca.org/dmdocuments/ChildLabor Final 2013.pdf.

17. International Labour Organization. About child labour. Geneva: ILO, 2011. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang--en/index.htm

18. International Tobacco Growers' Association. Trees and tobacco. Castelo Branco, Portugal: International Tobacco Growers' Association, 2008. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.tobaccoleaf.org/conteudos/default.asp?ID=17&IDP=4&P=4.

19. Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation. Foundation annual report 2010. Eliminating child labour in tobacco growing. Geneva: ECLT 2011. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.eclt.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/ECLTAnnualReport20101-11-final2_lores.pdf.

20. Philip Morris International. Child labor. New York: Philip Morris International, 2011. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.pmi.com/eng/about_us/how_we_operate/pages/child_labor.aspx.

21. British American Tobacco. Eliminating child labour in tobacco growing foundation. London: British American Tobacco, 2011. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.bat.com/group/sites/uk__3mnfen.nsf/vwPagesWebLive/DO52AQDT?opendocument&SKN=1.

22. Imperial Tobacco Group. Finding solutions to child labour. Bristol, UK: Imperial Tobacco Group, 2011. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.imperial-tobacco.com/index.asp?page=390 .

23. Otanez MG, Muggli ME, Hurt RD, and Glantz SA. Eliminating child labour in malawi: A british american tobacco corporate responsibility project to sidestep tobacco labour exploitation. Tobacco Control, 2006; 15(3):224-30. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/15/3/224