Thousands more deaths from heart disease and stroke could occur in England if Brexit goes ahead, researchers warn.
Fruits and vegetables play an important role in heart health, and the United Kingdom is highly dependent on imported produce, the authors of a new study explained.
Brexit - the UK's withdrawal from the European Union scheduled for March 29 - could trigger a sharp rise in produce prices in the United Kingdom, resulting in a steep drop in consumption, according to the results of a modelling study published online January 28 in BMJ Open.
In 2017, about 84% of the United Kingdom's fruit and 48% of vegetables were imported.
For the new study, researchers used a wide range of data to calculate how produce price increases after four different Brexit scenarios might affect the number of heart disease and stroke deaths in England.
The scenarios included: a free trade agreement with the EU and half of non-European countries that have trade deals with the EU; a free trade agreement with the EU only; a Brexit with no trade deals with any country and relying on the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules; and the United Kingdom trading under WTO rules, with no tariffs imposed on fruit and vegetable imports.
A no-deal Brexit would trigger the largest price hikes. The study estimated prices would rise about 17% for bananas, more than 14% for citrus fruit, and nearly 15% for tomatoes.
Currently, more than half of the U.K. population doesn't eat recommended levels of fruits and vegetables, and that would fall under each scenario, the researchers warned.
A no-deal Brexit would lead to the largest drop in produce consumption: about 11.4% for fruit and just over 9% for vegetables, according to the study.
The researchers suggested that the number of deaths from heart disease and stroke would rise under every Brexit scenario, but a no-deal situation would be the most harmful, resulting in an extra 12 400 deaths between 2021 and 2030. That's a rise of nearly 2%.
There was no substantial change in that estimate after researchers included a potential yearly increase of 2% in home-grown fruit and vegetable production.
"Post-Brexit trade policy could increase price and decrease intake of fruit and vegetables, thus increasing [cardiovascular disease] mortality in England," lead author Paraskevi Seferidi, of the public health policy evaluation unit at Imperial College London, and colleagues wrote.
"The UK government should therefore carefully consider the population health implications of Brexit during upcoming negotiations and post-Brexit planning, particularly adverse changes to food systems," the team concluded.