Time to crack down on the gambling industry

21 Feb 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Feb 2020

Pic: Pixabay

A consultation on reforming Northern Ireland’s hopelessly outdated gambling laws has just closed.

Media interest has been high. Last week parents from the charity Gambling With Lives whose children committed suicide as a consequence of gambling addiction were at Stormont lobbying for change. And a few days before that Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan revealed the terrible price that he and his family have paid for his own compulsive gambling.

Our laws date back to 1985, before the advent Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, the “crack cocaine of gambling” and before gambling migrated from the betting shop to our laptops and smart phones. They are simply not fit for purpose.

There appears to be all-party support for meaningful change. Legislators at Stormont now have the opportunity to make a real difference by making our regulations from the weakest to the strongest in the UK. So what should they do?

Some measures can be taken locally, others will require our MPs to campaign for change at Westminster.

A good start would be to understand the scale of the problem so that progress can be measured. Gambling With Lives points out the lack of basic data. Two years ago Labour MP Tom Watson was told by the Westminster government that the authorities did not know how many people were being treated for gambling addictions and at what cost.

The best figure we have from that period is an estimate from the Gambling Commission that across the UK the number with a “serious habit” is 430,000 with a further 1.6 million at risk.

And whilst we know that people addicted to gambling are 15 times more likely to take their own lives than the general population there are no officially recorded statistics. Gambling With Lives estimates that there are between 250 and 650 suicides in the UK caused by gambling every year.

Stormont should therefore explore how changes to the coronial system might be made in order to record the relevant suicides, and also develop means of calculating the numbers of gambling addicts here.

First we need to recognise gambling addiction for what it is: an addiction. It needs to be taken as seriously as addictions to smoking and alcohol.

Several issues flow from this. First, as Gambling With Lives argues health bodies need to respond. We need treatment specialists in Northern Ireland, we need our GPs to screen patients for gambling problems and we need a gambling clinic.

This, along with independent research, could be funded by a levy on gambling companies.

Currently research is far too dependent on the gambling industry for funding, as a shocking report from Goldsmiths College laid bare.

It stated: “Researching gambling is a complex and politicised activity. Findings are used and misused to further agendas which change according to the political climate. Politicians are keen to accept the revenue that gambling generates, and to encourage the industry to base their operations within their jurisdictions, but they are also willing to accept the political capital which comes from opposing gambling when it suits them.”

The implications of this are profound and disturbing. Ultimately they mean that evidence can be tainted and that much of the research needs to be treated with a health warning, which becomes even more problematic when you consider government’s insistence on using an evidence-based approach to developing policy!

This is most starkly illustrated by the language and focus of much of the research around “problem gamblers” which presents gambling as entertainment and places the blame for ‘bad’ gambling with the individual.

The Goldsmith report concluded: “Industry’s views of problem gamblers, in particular, are often deterministic and derogatory. They are seen as people who are unable to control their behaviour. Some described treatment as a waste of money, and people with gambling problems as ‘problem people’.”

The consequence of this is that there is much more focus on treating individuals rather than closely scrutinising dangerous gambling products.

Gambling With Lives says that this approach: “avoids questioning the advertising and availability of gambling and, crucially, the gambling products which are deliberately designed to be addictive.”

The Goldsmith team spoke to many researchers and industry insiders as part of their project. One respondent told them: “With the anxiety that I always felt about potentially upsetting the industry and colleagues who were closely linked with them, I had enough. I didn’t even finish writing up, because it was going to be too much. So no one ever told me not to publish, but in a sense I self-sabotaged. I was really scared about potentially annoying the industry and then getting my reputation trashed, because I saw that happen at something and it really was horrible. So I had a choice, say everything is fine. In other words, lie. Or keep quiet and not expose myself to that critical attention. Wasn’t very brave of me was it?”

Ensuring that research is truly independent is vital. It should be funded via a levy on the industry, not directly by the industry.

The government at Westminster is also reviewing how gambling is regulated. There has been recent publicity suggesting that Boris Johnson wants to end shirt sponsorship of football teams. Curbing aggressive marketing will be imperative. But there is also a need to educate and inform the general public about the dangers of gambling.

In recent years the predominant attitude is to view gambling as part of the entertainment industry, which is good for the economy, providing both jobs and boosting tax revenues.

It is time to shift perspective. Gambling is a serious and growing threat to public health that can cause misery, destroy and even end lives. It’s not much fun at all.

Gambling is something to be tolerated rather than celebrated and the only question policy-makers should be considering is just how tough they need to get with it.





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