Turns out it’s not only unhealthy to smoke tobacco—it’s also unhealthy to pick it. Check out these details from my colleague Coco’s story about the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) an Oxfam-funded group that advocates for better working conditions for US tobacco workers. When FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez spent a day in the fields with tobacco pickers in North Carolina, he found that picking can be hazardous to your health:
Coated with nicotine that easily soaks through clothing and gloves, [tobacco leaves] are the source of “the green monster,”—a temporary sickness that strikes many workers laboring in the hot sun.
“Like poison ivy, you catch it through the skin. It’s like a serious flu. You start vomiting,” said Velasquez, adding that pesticides sprayed on the leaves can compound the effects of the illness. Farm workers wear long sleeves and pants to protect themselves as best they can. But when the leaves are wet with rain or dew, the nicotine sinks through quickly. On those days, workers will often don makeshift rain coats fashioned from garbage bags for a bit of extra protection. But there’s a personal cost to that, too: They’re sweltering.
It’s worth noting that most pickers earn less than $7,500 a year, and receive little protection from these unsafe working conditions. FLOC and other groups are trying to bring tobacco companies to the negotiating table to get the workers a better deal.
For now, I sent this story to a close friend who’s a smoker, hoping that it might make him think a little more about the consequences of putting these chemicals inside his lungs. And I wasn’t just being sanctimonious—I quit smoking almost one year ago (October 22, 2007, to be exact) so I know that every last bit of motivation helps. Though my friend smokes “all-natural” tobacco, as I did, I don’t think it makes much difference; pesticides or not, smoking is still toxic, at both ends of the consumer chain.