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Brexit could result in thousands more deaths from heart disease and stroke, scientists say

It comes a day after bosses at supermarkets wrote to MPs urging them to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

NEW RESEARCH HAS found that Britain’s departure from the EU could contribute to thousands more deaths from heart disease and strokes by 2030. 

Researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Liverpool looked at how different Brexit scenarios would lead to increased costs of imported fruit and vegetables, resulting in people potentially eating less and increasing their risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The study, published in the British Medical Journal Open, found that all trade scenarios they looked at would reduce fruit and vegetable intake in the UK.

A no-deal Brexit was deemed as the scenario most damaging to public health, with researchers estimating that there will be 12,400 additional deaths from CVD in England between 2021 and 2030. 

Yesterday, bosses at supermarkets and food chains wrote to MPs urging them to avoid a no-deal Brexit and warned of the risks that it could reduce the availability of many products.

Almost one-third of the food consumed in the UK comes from the European Union, they stressed.

In March the situation is more acute as UK produce is out of season: 90% of our lettuces, 80% of our tomatoes and 70% of our soft fruit is sourced from the EU at that time of year.

“As this produce is fresh and perishable, it needs to be moved quickly from farms to our stores,” they said in a letter to MPs.

Beyond the economy

“The UK government must consider the public health implications of Brexit trade policy options, including changes to the price of key food groups,” Professor Christopher Millett, from the School of Public Health at Imperial said. 

The UK’s exit from the European Union has long been framed in terms of its political and social importance. But this study shows that the impact of Brexit will reach far beyond the economy and may affect people’s risk of disease.

In 2017, 84% of fruit and 43% of vegetables eaten in the UK in were imported from the European Union and non-EU countries.

Paraskevi Seferidi, a PhD researcher at Imperial and first author of the study, said:

The UK is highly dependent on imports, especially for fresh fruits and vegetables. These have a strong protective effect on health. Our paper illustrates, for the first time, the potential negative impacts of Brexit on fruit and veg prices, intake, heart disease and stroke.

Brexit May will put her Withdrawal Agreement back before the House of Commons this today. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Deal or no-deal

Some of the scenarios tested by researchers included a free-trading agreement with the EU and third-party countries, a free-trading agreement with the EU, and a no-deal Brexit without a new trade agreement. Under all scenarios, the price of fruit and veg imported would increase substantially due to additional import tariffs and trade costs.

According to the study under a no-deal Brexit the cost of bananas would rise by approximately 17%, citrus fruits by 14%, and tomatoes by 15%.

The findings suggest that these price hikes would lead to the British public eating between 3% and 11% less fruit or vegetables, depending on the agreed deal.

When these changes were translated to CVD risk, they found that a new trade agreement with the EU and third-party countries would contribute to approximately 1, 360 extra coronary heart disease deaths and 2,740 stroke deaths between 2021 and 2030.

The no-deal Brexit scenario had by far the biggest impact, attributing the drop in fruit and veg intake to an average of 4,110 additional deaths from coronary heart disease and 8,290 stroke deaths between 2021-2030.

Best option to protect public health? 

According to the authors, a limitation of this study is that the scenarios modelled are not exhaustive and do not reflect all Brexit scenarios currently being debated.

The research also looks solely at England, but the authors claim that similar impacts are likely in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The authors also emphasised that the outcomes of their research are consistent with previous research on Brexit which estimated the cost of eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day is likely to increase for the average family in Britain – with estimates of an average increase of about £2.20 per week for a family of four.

Professor Martin O’Flaherty, from the University of Liverpool, who jointly led the study, added:

Unhealthy diets are a leading driver of ill-health in the UK and a critical policy lever to tackle chronic diseases. Staying within the European Union appears the best option to protect public health.

After British MPs overwhelmingly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal earlier this month, they will vote again today on what they want her to do next as the 29 March departure deadline looms.

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Adam Daly

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