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Free trade deal health threat

Free trade deal threat to public health

Published on: 13 April 2023

The UK’s free trade deal is a major threat to public health, experts warn.

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

In the British Medical Journal, experts from Newcastle University say the 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.

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.

An image of the Houses of Parliament

Wide-ranging implications

But Dr Courtney McNamara and colleagues argue that free trade deals have serious and wide-ranging implications for public health and policy making, as they commit countries to certain regulatory and legal obligations.

As such, they call on the government to commission a health impact assessment before signing takes place later this year to evaluate the potential benefits and harms of this deal.

Dr McNamara, a Lecturer in Public Health, said: “Free trade agreements hold promise of economic growth in the form of lower consumer prices and new export and employment opportunities.

“But, like most free trade deals, this new one has important implications for public health. 

“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.

“Let’s say the UK opts to restrict or regulate the marketing of vapes to children, or to ban the advertising of alcohol near schools, this deal allows foreign corporations to oppose these rules.”

The experts say the trade deal 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.

And while some workers might benefit from a boost in exports and demand, which might increase wages, they argue that those working in industries that are undercut by cheaper imports and unable to compete are likely to experience economic insecurity and potentially job losses, which carry huge consequences for health.

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.

Health impact assessment

Dr McNamara said: “To our knowledge, no national evaluation has been done to account for implementation costs with respect to changes in regulatory and dispute settlement rules.

“None of the maths amounts to enough justification for the UK to enter into a long-term agreement that could imperil the health of our people.

“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.

“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.”

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 CPTPP trade deal is a major threat to public health and warrants a health impact assessment. Courtney L McNamara et al. BMJ. Doi: 10.1136/bmj-2022-073302


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