Brexit could lead to thousands more deaths from heart attacks and strokes, research suggests.
With all Brexit proposals set to push up the cost of food, the report states that the amount of fresh produce people buy will fall.
The researchers claim a no-deal Brexit would have the worst impact, leading to more than 12,000 extra deaths between 2021 and 2030.
The new study, from Imperial College London and the University of Liverpool, used data from the World Health Organisation and HM Revenue and Customs to model the impact of Brexit on health.
The models 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.
All scenarios assumed an increase in trade tariffs and transaction costs – extra costs that the UK will be required to pay on imported goods.
The researchers also looked at people’s average intake of fruit and vegetables using the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
Even at present, only 27% of adults aged 19 to 64 and 35% of those aged over 65 achieve daily recommended fruit and veg intakes.
Under all Brexit scenarios modelled by the team, prices rose. For example, a no-deal Brexit would increase the cost of bananas by 17%, citrus fruits by 14%, and tomatoes by 15%.
Such price rises would lead to the British public eating between 3% and 11% less fruit or vegetables, depending on the scenario.
Because low fruit and vegetable intake is a ‘major risk factor’ for cardiovascular disease, this would impact heart and stroke deaths, the researchers warned.
Professor Christopher Millett, from the School of Public Health at Imperial, who jointly led the research, 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.
‘The UK government must consider the public health implications of Brexit trade policy options, including changes to the price of key food groups.’
The researchers said that, while their study focused on England, similar impacts are likely in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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.’
The researchers said the scenarios they modelled are not exhaustive and do not reflect all Brexit scenarios currently being debated.
But they said their study is 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 – by about £2.20 per week for a family of four.
Professor Martin O’Flaherty, from the University of Liverpool, who jointly led the study, said: ‘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.’
Victoria Taylor, from the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘Whatever the outcome of Brexit, it’s important that the nation isn’t hit with a large spike in prices that could make it harder to eat a heart-healthy diet.
‘Unfortunately, most adults in the UK already struggle to eat the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day.
‘Varying the types of fruit and veg you eat can make it easier to reach five portions and keep your meals interesting.’