Free trade deal is a major threat to UK public health, warn experts

The UK’s decision to join one of the world’s largest free trade agreements, known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), poses a major threat to UK public health, say leading experts including Mark Bellis, Professor of Public Health and Behavioural Sciences at LJMU.

They claim the new deal will make it harder for the UK to regulate tobacco and alcohol or ban products like those containing harmful pesticides.

In acceding to the CPTPP, the government hopes to boost trade, improve economic growth, and strengthen the UK’s strategic position as a global rule setter. 

But Professor Bellis and colleagues argue in the BMJ that the deals have serious and wide-ranging implications for public health and policy making, as they commit countries to certain regulatory and legal obligations. 

And they call on the government to tighten up consumer protections by commissioning a health impact assessment to evaluate the potential benefits and harms of this deal before signing takes place later in 2023.

The CPTPP poses several threats to public health in the UK, they explain. For example, it is likely to make it more difficult to enact policies to cut consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy food and drinks through clauses that allow foreign corporations to contest any such regulations.

It also contains provisions that effectively rule out a precautionary approach to food safety, meaning that bans on products like those containing harmful pesticides can be challenged.

The UK government has said the agreement will not mean lower health or food standards in the UK, and the authors acknowledge that the gross domestic product (GDP) boosting consequences of a free trade agreement could conceivably have positive health effects.

Based on the UK government’s own calculations, however, they point out that the economic case for joining the CPTPP “amounts to no more than a 0.08% increase in the country’s GDP over a 15-year period.”

More problematically, the government’s calculations fail to account for the implementation costs of joining the agreement, they add. “To our knowledge, no national evaluation has been done to account for implementation costs with respect to changes in regulatory and dispute settlement rules.”

“If a priority of the government is to do no harm, a commitment made explicit during Brexit negotiations, then it should take account of the health implications of its trade policies,” they write.

“Even if it is unlikely that, given the government’s poor track record on public health, the findings would influence its decision to sign, evidence produced by the assessment will still be extremely valuable by pointing to populations at risk and communities whose health might be safeguarded during the agreement’s implementation,” they add.

If the government fails to undertake a health impact assessment, it will fall to public health scholars, professionals, and advocates to mobilise and act to undertake this important work, they conclude.

The experts include Dr Courtney McNamara, University of Newcastle, Liz Green consultant in public health, Public Health Wales and Pepita Barlow, assistant professor at LSE.


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