Gambling is now a sizeable public health problem. The Gambling Commission estimates that there are about a third of a million adults experiencing a gambling problem (otherwise referred to as ‘gambling disorder’) and a further half million gambling in a way that puts them in an ‘at risk’ category.
Even more concerning, they have estimated that over 50,000 under 16s have a gambling problem. The toll on the health of individuals, families, and communities is now becoming recognised thanks to persistent work at the University of Birmingham School of Psychology and elsewhere.
There are several aspects of the psychology of gambling that have interested us and which are covered in my new book The Gambling Establishment published in September 2019. One, focussing on the addictive nature of modern gambling, concerns how it is being promoted in ways that are manipulative and misleading. Among the many deceptive methods being used are: the constant emphasis in advertisements on wins, winning and winners, a fostering of the illusion of skill and control, the random schedule of wins that disguises overall losses (‘losses disguised as wins’ or LDWs), and the increasing and ever changing use of online gaming and social media to provide gambling-like opportunities and to advertise and make easy links with gambling (the ‘loot boxes’ which have been making the news are an example). The industry has been charged with promoting ‘addiction by design’.
Another is about the psychology of social influence, specifically how we have been conditioned to accept a discourse supporting gambling’s enlarged place in society. There are two key elements. First, that the gambling-providing business is no different from any other, is positively beneficial for individuals, communities and the economy as a whole, and should therefore be encouraged to innovate and grow. Second, that their products are harmless if used sensibly and that those who do experience difficulty are failing to show due responsibility. This has been promoted by an alliance of the gambling-providing industry and Government, along with allies such as advisory bodies, industry-led social responsibility groups, legal advisors, advertising standards authorities, third sector organisations funded by industry, and some treatment providers and academic researchers who accept money from the industry. Collectively they constitute a powerful alliance and until very recently it has resisted change. Which is why I call it The Gambling Establishment.
There are now definite signs that the tide may be turning. In 2018 Government was at last persuaded, against industry advice, to reduce the maximum stake on the ‘roulette machines’ in betting shops (the fixed odds betting terminals) from £100 to the £2 which is the standard maximum for other kinds of gambling machine. Our own research was influential in that decision since it showed that about 25% of takings on that form of gambling were coming from people who had gambling problems.
Other moves have quickly followed. Public Health England is now conducting a Gambling Related Harms Evidence Review and I am serving on their Expert Reference Group. They will be examining the evidence of harms at the levels of individuals who gambling, including addiction and suicide, family harm, harm to communities such as the clustering of betting shops in poorer areas which local authorities are relatively powerless to control under the 2005 Gambling Act regulations, and societal harm in the form of normalisation of gambling, risks to children and young people, and its contribution to social and health inequalities. The House of Lords has recently set up its own Select Committee on the Social and Economic Costs of the Gambling Industry. The Royal Society for Public Health is setting up a Gambling Health Alliance. The language is changed from what it was when I last wrote a Brief on this subject five years ago: it is now ‘harms’, ‘costs’ and health that are foremost in the debate. The expression ‘responsible gambling’ is losing favour.
Changes to the language of debate are important but alone are not enough. What is needed now is: a comprehensive new Gambling Act, as proposed by the Labour Party, in place of the 2005 Gambling Act which rendered Britain one of Europe’s most liberal regimes; the replacement of the ordinary business ideology with an alternative public health perspective; a proper National Strategy for Gambling produced by Government with the Health Ministry taking a leading role; and a national policy and structure for funding gambling research, completely independent of the industry or regulator – currently the industry has far too much influence, conflicts of interests are endemic, the field is treated as tarnished by much of the academic community and there is evidence that top researchers are being attracted to other countries.