On 20 November 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted a convention containing 54 articles that frame the rights of the child and mandatory standards to the best interest of thechild: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We show how Children’s Rights are violated along the production and consumption chain of tobacco.

Children’s Rights

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was ratified by every country in the world except Somalia and the USA.

First precedence is the best interest of the child (Art. 3). It shall have top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children. Some central Rights of the Child are the rights to

  • life (article 6)
  • respect for the views of the child (article 12)
  • health (article 24)
  • education (article 28)
  • leisure, play and culture (article 31)
  • protection from economic exploitation (article 32)
  • protection from drug abuse (article 33).

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child monitors the compliance with children’s rights. Every five years, the signatory states are obligated to submit a report to the committee. This report should describe their progress in enforcing the UN CRC. Additionally, civil society in many countries publishes supplementary reports and submits them to the UN Committee. Children can also send a report to the committee.

If states do not comply with the obligations and goals of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Committee can only make recommendationsand publish statements. There is no opportunity for sanctions against governments. Nevertheless, the public pressure arising from a recommendation of the UN Committee is often an incentive for governments to make improvements.

Tobacco cultivation violates children’s rights

Malawi, child labour, tobacco, tobacco-free world
(c) O. Reinhardt / Zeitenspiegel

The cultivation of tobacco is very labour-intensive. Yet, smallholder families in the Global South rarely earn enough to sustainably secure their livelihoods or to employ additional workers.

That’s why in many countries children from the age of five start helping in the fields, among others in Malawi, Zambia, Brazil, Indonesia and the USA.

This work carries major health risks. The (regular) contact with tobacco plants leads to nicotine poisoning, also known as Green Tobacco Sickness. Likewise the fertilizers and pesticides used, often applied without protective clothing, also lead to poisoning.

Organophosphates and other agrochemicals cause for example nausea, depression and suicidal tendencies. Sharp tools also are a considerable risk of injury.

While the children are working in the fields, they cannot be at school, of course. Especially during harvest time, they miss their classes. If they go to school despite working, they are often tired and exhausted.

So, tobacco growing mainly violates these children’s rights: health, education, leisure and play as well as protection from economic exploitation.

Strengthening children’s rights in tobacco growing countries

To empower children in tobacco growing families, the living and working conditions of the families must be improved.

For their work in tobacco fields, farmers need training in the safe handling of chemicals and the green tobacco leaves (i.e. the contained nicotine). They need to know how to protect children from these toxins. To this end, state inspections on tobacco farms should be carried out. This could also help to combat exploitative child labour.

In order to prevent price manipulations of tobacco leaf merchants and to allow reasonable prices for farmers, tobacco growing countries should carry out governmental quality control of tobacco leaf, independent from the tobacco industry.

To offer these children a future prospects, access to free, flexible and high-quality education must be ensured. In the long term, adult tobacco farmers must be supported in finding alternative livelihoods to tobacco.

Countries like Germany benefit and support these working conditions by importing tobacco leaf. The German government therefore has a responsibility to hold companies accountable for violations of children’s rights in their supply chain.

Tobacco use violates children’s rights

child, secondhand smoke, tobacco-free world
(c) Wayne Tindall

Smoking has negative consequences for health. For children and adolescents, however, secondhand smoke is particularly harmful. When expectant mothers are exposed to secondhand smoke, it affects the unborn child in the womb. During pregnancy, this exposure increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth, and other developmental disorders.

In children and adolescents, secondhand smoke often leads to respiratory diseases, asthma and middle ear infections. These risks are particularly high when people smoke indoors, such as in the home or car when children are present.

When children or adolescents smoke, they have to face the same threatening consequential damages like all smokers: among others, various types of cancer, acute respiratory diseases and cardiovascular diseases. Additionally, they are more likely to become addicted in the long term. Studies have shown that about 90% of smokers started smoking before the age of 18.

Young people are tempted to smoke for various reasons: the smoking behaviour of their social environment and a generally positive image of smoking in general contribute to a low inhibition threshold. At the same time, tobacco advertising often targets children and adolescents. The marketing strategy is clear: Smoking is depicted as dynamic, cool and in. In addition to the classic billboard advertising that is still permitted in Germany, cigarette companies spread their messages via influencers in social media and sponsorship of sports and music events, that are attended particularly by young people.

Tobacco use thus violates the following children’s rights: life and development, health and protection from narcotics.

Strengthening children’s rights for a tobacco-free world

To protect the health of children and adolescents and promote their healthy development, the consumption of tobacco products must be reduced and strongly regulated.

The sale of cigarettes, tobacco and other nicotine products to and by minors must be prohibited. Additionally, there must be a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship by the tobacco industry.

Tobacco use can be reduced particularly effectively if tobacco taxes are regularly increased, adjusted to national purchasing power. They are best combined with strict regulation of packaging, such as standard packaging.

In order to protect children and adolescents specifically from secondhand smoke, non-smoker protection must cover all places where children are present. In addition, expectant and young parents must be specifically informed about the consequences of secondhand smoke in order to provide them with the necessary knowledge.

Finally, prevention programmes tailored to specific target groups and free cessation services are needed for adolescents, pregnant women and expectant parents.

Children have a right to a tobacco-free world.