Winning Post : UK gambling… No sign of the fun ever stopping

Industry strategic consultancy Regulus Partners breaks down a week in which UK gambling has been cross-examined by Parliament, the House of Lords, the NHS and further academic institutions…

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UK Parliament – no sign of the “fun” stopping in spite of Britain’s political meltdown

In spite of the staccato nature of parliamentary politics right now, there was still time this week for a couple of well-aimed kicks at the gambling industry’s increasingly fragile corpus. On Tuesday, the House of Lords Select Committee Inquiry into gambling heard testimony from a number of people with lived experience of gambling disorder.

The session was replete with testimony of alleged negligence – and perhaps worse – by certain licensees and their remote affiliates. Despite the wearying familiarity, evidence of persistent, aggressive and insensitive VIP marketing has not lost any of their power to shock; and will undoubtedly have left a deep impression on committee chair Lord Grade and his assembled peers. We must hope that they represent a partial view of a distant sun – indicative of how parts of the remote sector were in the past and at its worst. If not all of these caveats, then the Gambling Commission sanctions of recent years are likely to be seen as merely the prelude to a violent storm.

While evidence for those who have experienced harm is important, it tells only part of the story. It may be an unfashionable view but gambling companies exist as a response to consumer demand rather than as part of a global capitalist conspiracy. As Professor Don Ross has written: “Gambling industries exist partly as solutions to coordination problems, providing focal points where people who want to bet on things can find opportunities to bet and other people to bet against”.

It is therefore regrettable that the voice of the recreational gambler is almost always unheard in policy debates – and their interests are barely considered by those who seek to control what they may and may not do. It is unclear whether the Lords will seek to understand the views of those adults who enjoy gambling safely and value the freedom to pursue that enjoyment. If not, then it is critical that when the gambling industry appears in Parliament next month (British political dysfunction permitting), the various chief executives put aside their own vested interests and focus instead on championing the well-being of their customers – something that encompasses both enjoyment and safety.

The Liberal Democrats have been relatively silent on gambling in recent years – perhaps reflecting the reality that a niche party (at least in parliamentary terms) must restrict the range of issues on which it can focus. However, with internecine squabbles within the Conservative and Labour parties fuelling the rise of the Liberals, the fourth largest party in Parliament has returned to the gambling fray. This week, the former party spokesperson on gambling, John Leech pledged that a Liberal administration would “overhaul the gambling industry by tackling adverts, online betting which encourages ‘penny to pound gambling’ and marketing.” Such words suggest that the Liberal Democrats may be moving closer to the Labour Party on the need for new primary legislation. In this way, the odds of a new Act under a coalition government appear to have shortened; and at the same time pressure on the Conservative Party to nix the issue will have increased.

Leech, who served Manchester Withington as its Member of Parliament between 2005 and 2010 also took a swipe at the Senet Group’s ‘When the Fun Stops Stop’ maxim, stating: “it’s time to scrap the slogan because let’s be honest, by the time ‘the fun stops’, you are already dangerously addicted.” This assessment may be somewhat histrionic, but it perhaps contains a germ of truth.

In an article last year, we questioned the usefulness of a campaign designed to encourage abstention at the precisely the point where self-control becomes an issue; and others, including the Gambling Commission, appear to agree. This is perhaps a little unfair – ‘WTFSS’ is less of a chocolate teapot than the old invocation to “gamble responsibly”; but the industry can do better through positive and practical advice (and perhaps learning from jurisdictions – notably Canada – that have been doing this for a lot longer than the vast majority of UK operators).

UK: Safer gambling – gambling-related hospital admissions “skyrocket” to 0.002% of national total

This week, it was announced that Birmingham hospital admissions related to gambling had “skyrocketed” between 2016/17 and 2017/18. As skyrocketing goes – the 20 cases (rounded to the nearest fivesome but not all of which included a gambling disorder diagnosis) – would seem to be fairly underpowered. News reports did not disclose the base figure but we should assume that it was between zero and 15.

Nationally, there were 335 gambling-related hospital admissions up from 263 the year before and 297 in 2015/16. The NHS reports that there were 16.6 million hospital admissions in total across the United Kingdom in 2017/18 but its treatment specialty report does not include gambling disorder within its 159 categories (which seems odd given the fashion for referring to gambling as a “public health emergency”). We have assumed (perhaps incorrectly) that the bulk of gambling-related admissions are to be found under ‘adult mental illness’ (73,799 admissions) and ‘addiction services’ (488).

It was also announced this week that the United Kingdom would send its first lunar rover to explore the surface of the moon in 2021. We must hope that Birmingham is not selected as the launch site given the second city’s rather weak understanding of rocketry principles.

UK: Safer gambling – new study reveals most children don’t feel bad about gambling

A new study from the University of Cardiff has estimated 41% of schoolchildren aged 11 to 16 years in Wales may have gambled in 2017. The study findings, published last week in the European Journal of Public Health and based upon a survey response from more than 37,000 children across 193 Welsh schools, appear consistent with figures from the Gambling Commission’s own annual survey.

The most popular forms of past-week gambling were National Lottery products, fruit machines and private (i.e. with family and friends) betting and gaming. The 1.2% of children who claimed to have gambled online is also consistent with the 1.0% figure from the Commission’s annual survey (which has shown a marked decline over the last decade). Children from ethnic minorities appeared to be the greatest risk.

The survey found that of those who claimed to have gambled, 16% felt bad as a result. It is difficult to know how to interpret this finding. The University of Cardiff team cited this as an illustration of socioemotional harms (although we note that the question appears to have been a closed one and the highly pertinent question of whether any children felt good as a result of gambling appears not to have been asked). However, given that gambling is an activity with a negative expected return, there may be cause for concern about the 84% of children who claimed that they “never felt bad” about their gambling.

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Content provided by Regulus Partners

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